Hints we're getting of a Biden tech doctrine, nine months into this thing
It’s looking like attempting to use every part of the government apparatus to tighten up rules around it while also trying to avoid smothering its potential.
Hi there, good people. By way of reminder, this Slow Build, a twice-a-week newsletter on tech and society written by Nancy Scola. One topic I’m noodling on at the moment: the intersections of cryptocurrency and Washington. Know smart things? My ear’s yours.
After, frankly, a bit of a slow start, three-quarters of a year into the Biden era we’re starting right now to get a sense of what, beyond the campaign rhetoric, a Biden doctrine on technology is going to look like.
Now, it’s generally a bit of a fool’s move to say ‘Washington’s never seen anything like this!’ But, well, Washington’s never seen anything like this.
One way to think about it: there’s only really been two pre-Biden presidents in the age of Facebook. (Not doing Meta yet! And you can’t make me!) Facebook opened beyond college kids rights around the time of the 2008 election that made Barack Obama president. The Obama era was mostly a celebration of tech that continued the Clinton-Bush tradition of attempting to see just how much benefit the country could extract from Silicon Valley. Concerns emerged only really near the tail end, and soon Trump was president. The Trump era was about attempting to address those concerns through ideological big swings, a la ‘Hey let’s ban TikTok.’
The Biden era is about trying to marry this administration’s vision for tech with actually working the levers of government to make it concrete. And it’s only really now getting started.
So what did we see this week?
The U.S. warning Europe about its new ideas on online competition. The European Commission under President Ursula von der Leyen is pushing to make a Europe “fit for the digital age,” and at the center of that effort is competition chief Margrethe Vestager.1 Vestager and others are pushing a proposal called the Digital Markets Act that includes efforts to peremptorily check the power of digital “gatekeepers,” a category that seems to include — if not be limited to — Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. Word came that the Biden administration (though not clear exactly who in it) is warning the EU that the measure could unfairly require these U.S.-based companies to share trade secrets with competitors. The whole thing’s an interesting test of the boundaries of the administration’s eagerness to scale up competition in the tech industry.
Meanwhile, back at home, Biden signing legislation that restricts Huawei and ZTE from getting FCC licenses. The bipartisan bill, called the Secure Equipment Act, was championed by Sens. Markey and Rubio in the Senate, Reps. Eshoo and Scalise in the House, blocks those China-based companies from getting sign-off to sell networking equipment in the U.S., over security concerns. There are plenty of people in Washington and the tech policy world more broadly that dislike just about everything Trump did except his taking a hardline on China’s supposed weaponization of its domestic tech industry. All Biden did was sign the thing, but it was a signal that not only is Biden not eager to deviate from the last administration’s approach, he’s ready to implement it fully.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau cracking down on name matching. The agency under administrator Rohit Chopra issued an advisory opinion saying that the data practice of using just names — and not dates of birth, addresses, etc. — to pair people with their consumer records that then go on to be used by employers, landlords, and the like, “falls well below the statutory mandate” set by the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970. That legislation was meant to give Americans some measure of control over the data that defines them out in the world, and Chopra argued here that name-only matching is particularly harmful to people of color “because there is less surname diversity in those populations than among the non-Hispanic white population.” It all adds up to an example of Biden folks using the administrative state to meet the administration’s racial justice goals.
The Federal Trade Commission’s two sitting Democrats, warning Congress that the agency’s commission is swamped with companies looking for merger sign-offs. “We are faced with a continued explosion in deal volume coupled with serious resource constraints that are overburdening our ability to investigate carefully mergers that may prove unlawful,” they wrote in a statement to the Hill. They cited numbers, saying that by September they’d had more merger filings than any of the previous ten full years. It’s not hugely surprising — a new commission under new leadership is a clever time to get a merger through — but this FTC is trying to claw back a bit of leverage. They’ve already put companies on notice that they might revisit mergers that have already passed through the time-limited process. This week they told Congress they need more money to keep up.
So what’s the Biden doctrine on tech? It’s looking like attempting to use every part of the government apparatus to tighten up rules around it while also trying to avoid smothering its potential.
If that sounds tricky, there’s a reason for that.
Reaching the base from Brazil to Bristol to Pine Bluff
Elsewhere in the world, politicians, publications, and other powers-that-be are trying new ways to connect with those that back them:
The encrypted Telegram messaging platform is emerging as a near-perfect vehicle for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and allies to sew doubt about the validity of the upcoming elections in that country. Critics of that use of the tool note that with Dubai-based Telegram having no local presence in Brazil, they have limited ability to get the company to take ameliorative action. So some legislators are pushing the notion that companies like Telegram should have a boots on the ground in Brazil or not be able to operate.
Virginia’s Republican lieutenant governor-elect Winsome Sears is getting notice for the way she and her supporters used her campaign team Twitter account — a fun, sometimes odd way of getting attention in a race overshadowed by the top of the ticket. Sometimes odd how? Here’s one tweet that manages to blend references to drug-inspired slang associated with the rapper Lil B, gun carrying, and cryptocurrency.
Veteran Democratic digital strategist Scott Goodstein is pointing to that same election to argue that Democrats need to evolve the way they communicate with voters. Case in point: what he says was the low quality of Democratic governor nominee Terry McAuliffe’s Spanish language version of his website, one that kicked people over to an English-only donation page in a state where the Latino vote was key.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is doing away with its daily print edition, but rather than just simply expecting readers to head to the website, they’re equipping them with iPads — and tutors to help them navigate the publication’s “digital replica.” It’s a bid to keep the paper’s audience of not just older people, but anyone who likes feeling ‘done’ with the day’s news.
The content meta-wars
Here’s something fun to sit and ponder: the seeming coronation of one-time Facebook employee Frances Haugen as the leader of the anti-Facebook movement is proving to be a little annoying to the researchers and advocates who have spent years now working on some of the same challenges Haugen’s now being called to speak on in Washington.
Of course, for those folks, there’s good in all this: Haugen has been drawing attention to their issues, which always nice. But it’s also a wee bit irksome. There’s something of the Oprah-for-president effect at work, where the political class sees someone having a good run of things and decides they should be promoted to jobs for which they in other times wouldn’t look to be obviously qualified. Haugen’s been deemed a policy oracle when people who have put in the hard work still struggle to even get heard. St. John’s School of Law’s Kate Klonick breaks down the tensions.
Today at 3:30 p.m. ET, Georgetown Law’s Institute for Technology Law & Society is putting on "Celebrating 25 Years of the Internet Archive: The Future of Digital Information." featuring Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle and others.
Your beeping smoke detector is scaring your dog more than you might think.
Any mention of Vestager must include the fact that she was the inspiration for the main character in the series “Borgen,” Birgitte Nyborg. If you haven’t taken in “Borgen,” if you’re a Slow Build reader, there’s a very good chance you might like it.