This story is part of , CNET’s coverage of the run-up to voting in November.
The Democratic national ticket is complete, and the general election campaign is in full swing. Presidential nominee Joe Biden made history with his pick of Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate as he looks to unseat Donald Trump and take the White House.
Though technology issues, including net neutrality, rural broadband and online privacy, were hot topics in the primary season, the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout have dominated the political discussion over the past several months. Battle lines are now being drawn, following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday, as President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell push to fill her seat on the court in the coming months.
It’s little surprise that technology has taken a back seat. But the COVID-19 crisis, which has led to a rapid adoption of telemedicine and virtual education, has also highlighted the digital divide preventing millions of Americans from accessing high-speed internet.
Even though tech policy isn’t likely to determine the outcome of the election, whoever occupies the Oval Office will have a major influence on the tech sector, from setting infrastructure policy on broadband deployment to foreign policy and national security issues involving China to deciding how to handle the growth and influence of social media giants. Big tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter are already feeling the heat from politicians on both sides of the political aisles.
During congressional hearings in July, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook and Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai were grilled about allegedly monopolistic practices. The Trump administration has also used Chinese-owned tech companies, including TikTok and Huawei, in its broader approach toward dealing with China.
So far, Biden has remained relatively quiet on tech. His running mate, who hails from California and has close ties to Silicon Valley, will likely be seen by the industry as more a friend than a foe. But it’s hard to imagine that under new Democratic leadership Big Tech would enjoy the same kind of cozy relationship it had during Barack Obama’s administration, which Biden served in as vice president for eight years. (You can read about.)
Here’s a look at where Biden stands on the issues.
Unlike some of the other Democratic candidates, Biden hasn’t said much about net neutrality. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, by contrast, expressed early on in their candidacies strong support for the principle.
A spokesman for Biden’s campaign said Biden is a supporter of strong net neutrality protections.
“As Barack Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden was proud to push for net neutrality and see the [Federal Communications Commission] take direct action to keep the internet open and free for all Americans,” the spokesman said in a statement. Biden, he said, was outraged at seeing the Open Internet Rule reversed under the Trump administration.
But Biden’s track record tells a different story. When he was a senator, he didn’t co-sponsor or support net neutrality legislation, including the 2007 Internet Freedom Preservation Act. Other prominent Democrats, including then-Sens. Obama and Hillary Clinton, were co-sponsors of that legislation, as was Sanders.
Biden also has a close relationship with Comcast executives, who’ve lobbied against strict net neutrality regulations. Comcast Senior Vice President David Cohen hosted Biden’s first fundraiser after he announced his bid for president.
“Biden’s record on net neutrality is concerning, to say the least,” said Evan Greer, deputy director for the grassroots organization Fight for the Future. “Companies like Comcast and Verizon have contributed enormous amounts of money to both Democrats and Republicans over the years.”
But those ties aren’t concrete evidence of Biden’s stance. It’s worth noting that Obama also held fundraisers with Comcast before eventually calling, in a YouTube video, for stricter regulation of broadband under Title II of the Communications Act. These stricter regulations treated broadband like a public utility, such as the old-style telephone network. As president, Obama also went golfing with Comcast CEO Brian Roberts in 2013.
“Roberts and David Cohen are big donors to Democrats, and Biden has been around a long time,” said Gigi Sohn, a former FCC official under Chairman Tom Wheeler, whose FCC developed the net neutrality regulations that were scrapped under Trump. “So I’m not really shocked that he has ties to them.”
Sohn said she isn’t too worried about what would happen with net neutrality if Biden were to become president.
“I fully expect that a President Biden would appoint an FCC chair that would reinstate net neutrality and the FCC’s authority to oversee the broadband market under Title II,” she said. “This was one of President Obama’s signature initiatives, and I can’t imagine that Biden would undermine it.”
Sohn also pointed out that the political landscape has changed on net neutrality since Biden served in the Senate. Net neutrality under Title II is strongly supported both by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, which means that going against strong protections would likely defy a core principle of the party’s current platform.
Biden has called rebuilding the middle class in America “the moral obligation of our time.” And he sees revitalizing and ensuring economic opportunity in rural America as a cornerstone of that effort. A big part of his rural economic development strategy is investing $20 billion in getting broadband access to communities that don’t have it. He’s also called for partnering with municipal utilities to bring fiber broadband connections to communities across rural America.
“High-speed broadband is essential in the 21st Century economy,” Biden’s rural policy reads. “At a time when so many jobs and businesses could be located anywhere, high-speed internet access should be a great economic equalizer for rural America, not another economic disadvantage.”
The COVID-19 crisis highlights the gaps in coverage. And Biden’s campaign said that the $20 billion in broadband infrastructure funding is meant to help close those gaps.
“As we face the economic impacts of this global pandemic for months to come, it’s critical we bridge this divide and build a digital infrastructure that is available to all,” the campaign said in a statement regarding this policy.
The digital divide is an issue Republicans recognize as well. The White House has worked with the FCC on the, which reallocates $20.4 billion in funding to subsidize broadband infrastructure in underserved areas. Trump has also included high-speed internet access as part of a .
Though Warren pushed to break up big tech companies, like Amazon and Facebook, Biden has said it’s too early to talk about breaking up companies and instead has leaned toward regulation as a way to curb their power.
Specifically, he’s called for changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives online platforms, like Facebook, legal immunity for content posted by third-party users. The law also gives these companies legal cover to make good-faith efforts to moderate their platforms.
“[The Times] can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can,” Biden told The New York Times editorial board in January, referring to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Biden said Section 230 “immediately should be revoked” for Facebook and other platforms.
“It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company,” Biden continued. “It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy.”
Meanwhile, Facebook and other Silicon Valley players have defended Section 230. Still, the industry hasn’t felt as threatened by Biden as it did by Warren. And with worries about COVID-19, notions like breaking up big tech may be put on the back burner.
This isn’t likely to change based on his pick of Harris as VP. As California’s attorney general, Harris didn’t take on industry consolidation, even as firms like Facebook gobbled up smaller competitors. Still, Harris has more recently called for platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, to crack down on rampant misinformation — even when that misinformation comes from the current occupant of the White House.
Harris was vocal last year in urging Twitter to ban Trump from the platform for “tweets [that] incite violence, threaten witnesses, and obstruct justice.” This was a demand Twitter rejected. She has also been critical of Facebook for failing to do more to rid its platform of misinformation.
On the 2020 campaign trail, Biden hasn’t said much about data privacy. But during his years as a US senator and as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1990s, he introduced and co-sponsored several pieces of legislation to make it easier for the FBI and law enforcement to monitor communications, including the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which allows law enforcement to surveil communications over the internet, including voice over IP calls and other internet traffic.
Biden also introduced two pieces of legislation in the early ’90s — the Comprehensive Counter-Terrorism Act and the Violent Crime Control Act — that were staunchly anti-encryption. For instance, his counterterrorism bill would’ve allowed government officials to obtain data and communications from electronic service providers “when appropriately authorized by law.”
The bill never became law, and technology has evolved through the years. But the legislation is similar to calls from Attorney General Wiliam Barr, who’d like to see tech companies offer law enforcement back doors into devices to gain access to encrypted data.
For her part, Harris grilled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his handling of consumer data when he testified before the Senate in 2018 following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which millions of Facebook users’ information was sold to third parties without their knowledge. She’s also called for regulation and oversight to protect consumer information.
China and tariffs
Democrats across the board have been critical of Trump’s tariff war with China, which has affected imports on a wide range of tech products. Tariffs are taxes paid by importers on goods arriving from foreign countries, and Trump has used them to pressure the Chinese government on broader trade issues. Two rounds of tariffs, including a 15% tariff on products like phones, laptops and tablets, have gone into effect. Another round was avoided in a “phase one” trade deal.
On the campaign trail, Democratic candidates, including Biden and Harris, have been light on specifics as to how they’d deal with China. But Biden has made it clear he believes Trump’s negotiations have hurt Americans. He says the US needs “new rules” and “new processes” to dictate trade relationships with foreign countries.