Nov 2, 2020

This election will set the course for tech policy for years to come

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Biden and Trump disagree sharply on immigration policy and net neutrality.

There’s a lot riding on the 2020 election, and that’s no less true for the tech industry. Criticism has become bipartisan over the past four years. There was wide support for an antitrust lawsuit against Google, for example. But on other issues the parties and candidates differ profoundly, like on their views over how tech platforms should or should not control users’ speech, their legal liabilities and net neutrality.

Issie Lapowsky is a senior reporter at Protocol. We asked her where the greatest partisan divides are: the policies where we might see wildly divergent outcomes depending on who wins this election. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Issie Lapowsky: I would say the biggest difference is on immigration policy. We know this has been a hallmark of President Trump’s administration. We talk a lot about what’s going on at the border. But there have been some major changes to high-skilled immigration and the way that people are able to come over here from other countries to do tech work. And so tech companies are some of the biggest employers of so-called H-1B visa holders. And President Trump has really tried to rein in the H-1B visa program, because his concern is that H-1B visas are displacing a lot of American workers. On the flip side, the Biden administration, I believe, would probably look to expand the number of H-1B visa holders in this country. That’s something that the left has embraced and something that the right certainly has not.

Sabri Ben-Achour: Are there any tech issues where the result might be the same, regardless of who’s elected?

Lapowsky: I would say anti-trust enforcement is something that will be interesting to look at. We know that Democrats have really been beating this drum for a long time. I think we are starting to see a little bit of that on the right, though, too. So, I think this is sort of an area of overlap. It’s something that Democrats have been leading the way on for a long time, but something that, because of all of these other frustrations on the right about Big Tech, you’re starting to see percolate there as well.

Ben-Achour: The Trump administration has taken a very hard line against China in all things tech. Targeting Huawei, for example. Do you think we would see a continuation of that under a Biden administration?

Lapowsky: That’s a really good question. It’s something I’ve asked the Biden campaign about and not gotten a great answer on. I know that Vice President Biden has said that he’s going to hold China accountable for a lot of the things it’s done over the last four years. Among those things, I would expect would be suspicion of how their tech could be used as surveillance. So I think that that is something that they will continue to look at, but I certainly wouldn’t expect them to sort of keep this cudgel hanging over companies like TikTok, where they’re being forced to effectively find a way to sell in order to meet the Trump administration’s demands. I think that was much more a Trumpian type of negotiation than it would be a Biden-esque type of negotiation. But I would expect a Biden administration to continue to scrutinize Chinese companies operating in the U.S.

Ben-Achour: Net neutrality, the idea that internet service providers should not discriminate or distinguish between websites or apps in terms of internet speed or access, that has eroded under the Trump administration. What is at stake there?

Lapowsky: A whole lot is at stake. This was a huge fight under the Obama administration to get protections in place to guarantee net neutrality. And under the Trump administration, and specifically under Ajit Pai’s FCC, they have rolled back those rules. And this is something that I think you would definitely expect a President Biden under his administration to try to put those rules back in place. That was a huge hallmark of the Obama administration. It was a big accomplishment. It’s something the tech industry most certainly wants to see. And so I think you’re going to see a big fight over that if Biden does get into office,

Ben-Achour: The Obama administration had been criticized by some for being too friendly to Big Tech. What do we know about how a Biden administration might or might not differ when it comes to tech policy?

Lapowsky: I think it’ll be pretty different, just because so much has changed in terms of the reputation of Big Tech in the last four years. You’re right that under the Obama administration, they really held Silicon Valley close. Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, was involved in President Obama’s reelection campaign and all of these tech luminaries were invited to dinner with President Obama to sit around the table together, and they were on committees serving in the White House. A lot has changed since then. Back then, these companies were the darlings of the economy. They were examples of companies that started out of somebody’s garage or dorm room and suddenly turned into these overnight, huge successes that employed lots of people and gave them good paying jobs and lots of perks.

The sort of dark side of what these companies could accomplish, or the way that they operated, hadn’t been as thoroughly scrutinized. And I think the 2016 election changed a lot of that when we saw what was happening in terms of the proliferation of hate speech and fake news and foreign election interference. I think that brought a lot to light in terms of the way both sides of the aisle saw these tech companies. And so you have heard Vice President Biden be a lot stronger in terms of talking about tech and the negative aspects of tech. He said that he wanted to repeal Section 230, which is one of the hallmarks of the internet that allows these tech platforms to operate the way that they do. It should be noted that President Trump has also said he wanted to repeal Section 230. And the two candidates want to repeal that law for pretty much diametrically opposed reasons. But it is notable that Vice President Biden would come out against a law that is so favored in the tech industry. I can’t imagine that having happened under Obama.

Ben-Achour: President Trump’s orientation towards Big Tech seems to have gotten more negative over the course of his administration, not that it started off in a particularly good foot. But how might his policy change in a second term?

Lapowsky: I would expect to see a lot of the same. I think you’re going to continue to see these allegations of conservative censorship just sort of increase. And in terms of immigration policy, we’re already seeing these changes to H-1B visas get more explicit and more dramatic. He wants to completely reorient the way these visas are doled out to make sure that they’re going to high-wage workers. That will have a huge, huge impact on any young people who are trying to come to the U.S. or people who have recently graduated and are making maybe taking an entry-level job in tech on one of these visas. It’ll have a huge impact if these more draconian changes to H-1B visas happen in President Trump’s second term.

Related links: More insight from Sabri Ben-Achour

One area we didn’t talk much about is spending on research and development and basic scientific research. It’s one of the competitive battlegrounds between the U.S. and China, and really the rest of the world. Back in the ’60s, government-funded R&D was more than 1.8% of U.S. GDP. Now, it’s just over 0.6%. China is catching up at about 0.4%.

In the U.S., the private sector has made up for the lost spending from the government over the decades, but, as MIT Technology Review reports, it’s mostly in pharma. That’s all well and good, but the industries where the competition with China is heated and where the need is greatest include climate change mitigation and artificial intelligence. AI is an area where China has an edge in some cases.

“The venture capital model is good at building things people want, it’s less good at producing things society needs in order to solve hard, long-term problems like pandemics and climate change,” editors at Tech Review wrote. The Trump administration has proposed increasing NASA’s budget by 12% and increasing investment in AI, quantum computing, 5G and other areas. The Biden campaign has promised more: $300 billion over four years for research and development more broadly. Our own election aside, the global race over who will dominate the technologies of tomorrow is on, we are in it, and there will be winners and losers.

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