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What Silicon Valley needs from the 2020 election

September 30, 2020, 10:45 PM UTC

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During the 2020 presidential campaign, both Democrats and Republicans have found a mutual target: big tech companies. And while they propose different policies, neither party is expected to be Silicon Valley’s savior.

“Regardless of who wins, Silicon Valley has been able to unite the parties in their distrust in the tech sector,” said Scott Stern, a management professor at MIT who has researched government innovation policy. “You see that generally across a swath of issues.”

As behemoths, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple have been targeted with intense criticism for their business practices. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have laid into various big tech companies over their data collection practices and failure to police misinformation on their services and for allowing hate speech to flourish.

This story is part of a special report examining what’s at stake for a wide range of industries—and for many workers—in this year’s election.

Liberals like Sen. Elizabeth Warren have called for Big Tech to be broken up. They say that tech companies have become too powerful, used people’s private information for profit, and stifled innovation by squashing their competition.

Meanwhile, Republicans including President Trump claim social media companies have unfairly censored conservatives. The President has also tried to shut down Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat, suggesting that they’re national security threats. Additionally, Trump has repeatedly called for the U.S. Postal Service to charge Amazon more to deliver its millions of packages. Amazon’s CEO happens to be Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, a frequent thorn in Trump’s side.

“We shouldn’t be surprised if [politicians] of whatever camp have political axes to grind,” said Nathaniel Persily, codirector of Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center.

In the upcoming year, tech companies plan to push a smorgasbord of policy changes, each of which will have its own political implications. They want to close the digital divide by making the Internet accessible to more people, and they want the government to invest more in IT infrastructure and reduce obstacles to trading with international customers—issues that don’t appear to be partisan. But tech companies also plan to focus on more divisive topics like loosening visa rules so they can more easily hire foreign workers; prohibiting Internet service providers from delivering certain services and apps more quickly; and establishing rules for user privacy and what users should and shouldn’t be allowed to post.

Finally, the biggest battle for Big Tech will be over antitrust law, an increasing source of tension during the Trump administration. Federal regulators, whose leaders are appointed by the President, are already investigating Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

It’s unclear whether a Biden administration or a Trump administration would be more favorable to Silicon Valley, experts and lobbyists say. “It’s nuanced, rather than a simple answer,” said Angie Kronenberg, chief advocate and general counsel at tech lobbying group Incompas, which represents companies including Google, Amazon, and Facebook. 

The Trump administration hasn’t released a list of proposed tech policies for the 2020 election, leaving many to guess what it may focus on during a second term. But the administration’s track record provides a guide.

For example, in June, Trump announced a temporary ban on H-1B visas that allow U.S. companies to employ foreign workers in certain jobs. Silicon Valley has notably depended on these visas to employ large numbers of programmers and other technicians.

Trump has also taken aim at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a key law that protects companies from being held liable for what their users post. When the Federal Communications Commission repealed net neutrality rules, which prohibited broadband providers from slowing Internet speeds or charging extra for speedier delivery of their services, Trump considered the ruling a “great win.”

Finally, Trump is no stranger to executive orders, many of which directly affected tech companies. Since 2016, he’s signed 183 orders, or 36 more than President Barack Obama and 12 more than President George W. Bush during their first four years in office.

“I would think that these tech companies are going to be very nervous about Trump being reelected because of his authoritarian tendencies…the willingness of him to take them on,” said Ray Horton, a professor at Columbia Business School who teaches a course about the intersection of politics and business. “He’s going to go after them the minute they cross him in a much more fundamental way than Biden or his colleagues.”

Biden has more support from the mostly left-leaning employees of Big Tech. Tech billionaires including Laurene Powell Jobs, Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz, and Zynga founder Mark Pincus have all donated the legal maximum of $620,600 to the Biden Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee. And when Biden chose Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, tech moguls like Powell Jobs and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg voiced their support on Twitter

But a Biden administration poses its own challenges to the tech industry. On the campaign trail he’s already raised the issues of hate speech and online misinformation, demanding that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg clean up the “rants of bad actors and conspiracy theorists.” 

Biden also plans to raise corporate tax rates to 28% compared with the current 21% and suggested he would take a harder line on China, working with traditional U.S. allies to try to force change in areas like climate change. 

Though Biden has said he plans to use diplomacy to further his agenda, Jason Oxman, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based tech advocacy group Information Technology Industry Council, said he worries about Biden’s “aggressive” stance on China. “We know that China has a policy of forced tech transfers and a history of not fighting intellectual property theft,” he said. “What we don’t want to see is a decoupling from China … a market of $1.3 billion people.”

Finally, some political and tech experts suggest a Biden administration may empower antitrust regulators and push for more aggressive measures against Big Tech.

“Joe Biden is not Elizabeth Warren,” Stanford University’s Persily said of the Massachusetts Democratic senator. “But there is a renewed appetite for greater regulation of Silicon Valley coming from the left.”

Regardless of who ends up in the White House following the November election, one thing is clear: Big Tech will have some big obstacles in the years ahead. And lobbyists are already working with the campaigns to understand the issues that they need to prepare for.

“We think that for the most part the candidates are aligned on one thing: to meet the challenges” of the industry, said Mike Lemon, counsel for one of the tech industry’s biggest lobbying groups, the Internet Association. “We look forward to continuing to work with them regardless of who takes the office.”

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