As the 2020 presidential election heats up next year, big tech will be front and center as candidates and members of Congress grapple with questions touching online privacy, antitrust, access to broadband and more.
While impeachment hearings have divided the country, when it comes to the big tech issues of the day, Republicans and Democrats actually agree on the basics: Large online platforms like Amazon, Google and Facebook are too powerful and need to be reined in. The digital divide between rural and urban America needs to be closed. And there should be some net neutrality protections to ensure everyone has equal access to the internet.
But of course, the devil is in the details. And there’s a broad spectrum of ideas and proposals, especially among Democrats running for president.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has a complicated relationship with big tech. He’s publicly been very critical of companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter. He’s accused the social media platforms of censorship and bias against him and conservatives. He’s personally attacked online Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Yet Trump imposing regulations or dismantling companies would run counter to his broader agenda of giving businesses more, and not less, freedom. Many of his policies have helped or protected these big companies, such as the 2018 tax changes that were a boon to corporate America. Even the trade war with China is partially rooted in the White House’s desire to protect US intellectual property from being stolen by the Chinese government.
Here’s a look at some of the tech issues both Trump and the Democratic candidates for president will likely be talking about from the campaign trail.
There’s consensus among Democratic presidential candidates: Stronger protections are needed to ensure companies safeguard users’ personal information online. In general, they all agree that there should be guidelines on how to handle that information and that companies should be held accountable when privacy policies are violated.
So far, most candidates haven’t gotten too detailed about their plans. Andrew Yang, a former tech entrepreneur, has taken the most aggressive stance to date. He believes personal data is a property right. And he’d like big tech companies that profit from personal data to share that money with their users. In other words, if companies like Facebook and Google make money off people’s data, they should be taxed and they should share that money with those whose data was mined.
Trump has largely been mum on social media or in speeches about the privacy issue. But his administration has been working behind the scenes, meeting with big tech companies and trade groups to discuss the issue.
What’s happening in Congress?
Congress has been working all year on legislation. After months of bipartisan talks, Senate leaders released dueling privacy bills following the Thanksgiving break. But the bills have many things in common, which should make a compromise doable.
The Republican version of the bill, introduced by Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, is called the Consumer Data Privacy Act, and would allow consumers to access, correct, delete and port data that companies have about them. But it would also preempt state privacy regulations, such as the one passed in California earlier this year. It also gives the Federal Trade Commission limited authority to regulate privacy. But it wouldn’t allow individual citizens to sue companies for violating privacy rights.
The Democratic version, introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, is called the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act, and it gives the FTC greater enforcement authority. Unlike the Republican bill, this legislation would allow for individual consumers to bring civil suits to enforce the law.
Meanwhile, California’s privacy law, the strictest in the US, takes effect Jan. 1. Now Congress is under pressure to pass some kind of federal legislation, which could motivate Democrats and Republicans to work toward a compromise.
Tech competition and antitrust
The idea of breaking up internet giants like Facebook has become fashionable in Washington, DC. But Democrats running for president are split on the issue.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is the leader in the tech-busting movement. She’s made the breakup of big tech companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google a cornerstone of her campaign. She’s compared these companies to big oil monopolies from the turn of the 20th century. Her plan calls for unwinding past mergers and passing legislation to prohibit companies from participating in markets where it also owns the platform, such as how Amazon can act as a seller on its online marketplace, competing with other vendors.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont also believes that big tech companies have too much power. But he’s stopped short of offering a detailed proposal about how to break up the tech companies. He’s cast his glance over at the broadband providers instead.
Other 2020 presidential candidates — such as former Vice President Joe Biden; Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana; Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey; and Yang — agree that more regulation may be needed and the companies may need to be split apart. But Klobuchar and Booker, for instance, have been on the record as saying this is a job for the Department of Justice to decide.
Trump has been sympathetic to the idea that companies like Facebook should be broken up — not because he fears their size and scale may violate antitrust law, but because he views them as biased against him. In June he told CNBC’s Squawk Box that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter “discriminate against me.”
Twitter and Facebook have said they don’t discriminate against Trump and other conservatives, and their CEOs have met privately with Trump this year.
What about regulators?
The FTC is pursuing several antitrust investigations into online platforms. It’s confirmed that it’s looking into Facebook’s practices as well as others. The Justice Department and state attorneys general are also investigating whether large tech firms, such as Facebook and Google, are abusing their market power. More is likely to come out of these investigations in 2020, so stay tuned.
Another issue that Democrats and Republicans agree on is that something needs to be done to connect the millions of Americans living in rural areas who don’t have access to high-speed internet service.
The FCC reported earlier this year that 21 million Americans don’t have access to broadband. And given that pretty much everyone, including the FCC, agrees the broadband maps used to calculate this figure are wildly inaccurate, there’s a very good chance the number is much higher.
The problem is especially bad in rural communities. It’s created a great divide between the internet haves of the urban and suburban areas of the country and the rural have-nots. Given that this is an issue that affects a large number of Trump’s base living in rural parts of the US, Democratic presidential candidates have taken notice.
In his High-Speed Internet for All proposal, Sanders said the internet is a public utility. And he wants to create a $150 billion grant and aid program for local and state governments to build publicly owned broadband networks. He has also called for the breakup of large broadband companies, such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.
“We are going to take on the greedy internet, telecom and cable monopolies and put an end to their absurd price gouging,” Sanders said in a statement.
Warren and Buttigieg said they plan to invest at least $80 billion in rural broadband. Warren has not gone as far as Sanders in suggesting the breakup for big broadband companies. But she’s suggested that those companies be left out of subsidy programs, and instead money should be given to local governments and publicly funded utilities to build new rural infrastructure.
Biden said he supports getting more broadband to people in rural communities and he’s proposed $20 billion to expand rural broadband.
Trump has also shown concern over rural broadband. Earlier this year the White House worked with the FCC to announce the Rural Digital Opportunity program, which reallocates $20.4 billion in funding from the FCC’s existing Universal Service Fund over the next 10 years to subsidize eligible companies to build out broadband infrastructure in underserved areas. In April, Trump talked about high-speed internet access as part of a $2 trillion spending plan on infrastructure he’d hoped to work with Democrats on, but no deal was ever reached.
What about Capitol Hill?
It just so happens that Democrats and Republican in Congress are also fired up about rural broadband issues. The House passed two bills to help improve the abysmal maps used by the FCC in an effort to truly figure out where broadband does and does not exist. This should help the FCC better allocate federal subsidies. The Senate is expected to harmonize these bills with their own in the new year and get them to Trump for his signature.
Net neutrality, or the idea that all internet service providers be treated equally so broadband providers can’t favor their own content over a competitor, is still a lightning rod issue dividing Democrats and Republicans. This is despite the fact that most Americans support the idea of having rules in place to protect the openness of the internet. Republicans say they’re fine with that, too. But they don’t want the FCC to have too much control over regulating broadband.
Most of the Democratic candidates have said they support net neutrality and will appoint FCC commissioners who will restore the old rules.
Biden, however, is a potential wild card, since he has a history of being a net neutrality skeptic. Also, Biden’s first big fundraiser where he announced his candidacy was hosted by Comcast’s top lobbyist, causing concern among net neutrality supporters.
Trump is clearly a supporter of scaled-back broadband regulation, since he appointed Ajit Pai, the Republican FCC chairman who spearheaded the clawback of the Obama-era rules.
What about Capitol Hill?
The disagreement over how net neutrality should be regulated has kept Republicans in the Senate from taking up a vote to restore the Obama-era net neutrality rules that were dismantled two years ago. But Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail largely seem to be united. They want net neutrality back.
And while the issue hasn’t gotten as much attention as others so far in this election cycle, it’s an issue that’s directly affected by who’s in the White House. The reason why is that whoever becomes president will appoint a new FCC chairman and that party will control the FCC. And if Democrats take over, they can reinstate the old Obama-era protections.
China tariffs and Huawei
For more than a year, the US and China have been entangled in a trade war. Trump has used tariffs — taxes that importers in the US must pay to customs when goods arrive from China — as a tool to put pressure on the Chinese government. In September, a 15% tariff on about $125 billion worth of goods went into effect. An additional 15% tariff on products like phones, laptops, tablets and toys was set to take effect last weekend unless the US and China reached a deal.
Earlier this month another round of tariffs was avoided in a “phase one” trade deal with China that’ll cancel new tariffs on Chinese goods that were due to take effect in mid-December. The deal spares some popular devices such as Apple’s iPhone and Mac Pro from tariffs that were expected to affect roughly $160 billion in imports from China.
Trump has insisted that China pays the cost of tariffs. Economists say the actual burden falls on US businesses and then on consumers.
Democratic presidential candidates have largely been mum on Trump’s trade war with China. Instead, they’ve tried to avoid the issue and balance not falling into an endless trade war that could damage the economy with not wanting to appear weak when it comes to China’s trade practices.
Meanwhile, Trump has also conflated the China trade war with national security concerns around Chinese telecom gear maker Huawei. Trump has signed executive orders banning US companies from selling components to Huawei. And then he’s lifted those bans as part of the trade negotiations.
What about Capitol Hill?
Democrats and Republicans in Congress and on the FCC are taking a strong stand against Huawei from a national security perspective. And they’re banning the use of Huawei gear in government-subsidized 5G networks. The House has also passed legislation that’d provide funding to smaller rural carriers to rip out and replace older 4G LTE gear from Huawei.