Election day 2020: Each presidential candidate’s stance on tech
Here’s how your vote in the 2020 election can impact tech
The 2020 presidential election is tomorrow. After over a year of political mudslinging in debates, commercials, and on social media, we’re finally about to find out if President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden will lead the nation for the next four years.
Not only does this year’s election have health, political and economical implications, but it also reaches deep into the technology space. Both candidates have strong stances on big tech and what will happen with massive conglomerates like Alphabet, Apple, Facebook and others. They also both have opinions on tech-related policy issues, including the much-debated Section 230.
Below, we’ll cover what each candidate has planned for the tech space and what we believe will actually happen.
The political-leaning news that dominated the tech space has been Trump’s Chinese app ban, most notably his planned ousting of video-sharing app TikTok. Trump barred US companies from doing business with its parent company, ByteDance, effectively banning the app.
The initial ban was set to take effect 45 days from September 15, 2020, but a second executive order pushed that to 90 days.
One path around the ban was for ByteDance to sell TikTok’s US operations. The bidding war was on, but ByteDance was reluctant to give up control and instead opted for a deal with Oracle and Walmart that allowed TikTok to remain under majority ByteDance ownership, while Oracle manages its US data and takes a minority stake.
This appeased Trump, but China hit the brakes when it unveiled a new law that required all sale of artificial intelligence (AI)-based assets, including TikTok’s algorithm, to receive government approval. China has yet to approve the deal.
What will likely happen
There’s rumbling that the Chinese government is holding out for the election results before approving or denying the deal.
China likely feels Biden would scrap Trump’s executive order and allow TikTok to remain under full ByteDance control, though he’s called the potential security risk to US users as a “matter of great concern.”
However, Biden would likely scrap Trump’s executive order and focus on diplomatic negotiations with the Chinese government instead of forcing it — this will also likely carry into the Trump tariffs. That’s not to say Biden wouldn’t resort to extreme measures if diplomacy fails.
If Trump pulls off the unexpected (again) and wins re-election, China will likely sign off on the deal to avoid TikTok losing its US users.
Section 230 and social media censorship
Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act is two-fold. First, it protects ISPs, blogs and social media sites from being held legally liable for user-generated content.
This is the part of the law that gives us the ability to post what we like on social media, save for blatantly illegal things. If this part of Section 230 is removed, social media would likely struggle to exist, as the companies would be just one random post away from a monster lawsuit.
Section 230’s second act protects the same companies from censorship and freedom of speech lawsuits. While a court would likely throw out any case of a private company censoring speech on its own platform, Section 230 expressly eliminates any risk.
If Section 230 is struck down, social media companies would suddenly be liable for all content posted on their sites. What’s more, they would no longer be able to censor content, creating a dangerous legal no man’s land where they rely on users to be responsible. In this world of internet trolls hiding behind keyboards, responsibility is a rare sight.
How President Trump feels about Section 230
Trump hasn’t minced his words when it comes to his love-and-hate relationship with social media and big tech.
If there’s a way he can cut them off at the knees while still taking advantage of the free advertisement it gets him, he’ll try. This comes in spite of Twitter being his go-to place for announcing policy changes, revealing top-secret military strategies, slinging mud and ordering hamberders with a side of covfefe.
Section 230 is a specially tuned tech-giant killer, and he’s called on its repeal several times after Twitter or Facebook flagged his rants as misleading. Trump even went so far as to sign an executive order targeting Section 230. In the order he called Section 230 “selective censorship” and requested investigations of companies that engage in “unfair and deceptive” practices.
Trump’s biggest gripe with Section 230 is he feels Twitter and Facebook target him and other Republicans’ posts, flagging them as nonfactual or misleading.
How Joe Biden feels about Section 230
For all the policy disagreements they have, Biden and Trump find common ground on Section 230, sort of. Biden has also called for its repeal, but for different reasons.
Biden and other Democrats want to see the immunities the law gives social media companies pulled back, making them responsible for the content on their pages.
The main reason for this is the alleged falsehoods and hate speech posted on them. Democrats and Biden feel social media companies would do more to take these posts down if there were no immunities in place.
But, like many issues, Biden has been hot and cold on the outright revocation of Section 230. He called for its outright revocation in a New York Times interview, but he also called for an elimination of only the “exemption,” meaning the immunity, in a CNN interview.
Since Biden wants social media companies to remove hate speech and fake news altogether, logic says it’s the immunity he targets. If Biden and Democrats target all of Section 230, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites may face censorship lawsuits if they delete or edit user posts.
What will likely happen
What actually happens to Section 230 depends on how our elections go. Not only do we have a presidential election going on, but there are plenty of congressional seats available too.
If Trump is re-elected and Republicans keep the Senate majority and flip the House, there’s nothing stopping them from an outright revocation of Section 230. That’s a scary thought, as it would reshape social media as we know it.
Without the legal protections against censorship lawsuits or the protections against said prosecution due to illegal, offensive or dangerous content, social media companies would be a few keystrokes away from massive lawsuits. Plus, with the Supreme Court packed with convservative justices, social media companies could find themselves being sued for suppressing free speech, despite being private entities.
This could result in posts having to go through a queuing system where a moderator reviews them and determines if they’re acceptable, killing the real-time feeling that makes social media so engaging.
If either candidate wins and Congress remains mostly the same, we’ll likely see nothing. Though both sides want changes to Section 230, they would be deadlocked on what to change. Sure, there have been bipartisan bills drafted, but none have hit the mark where either side would throw enough support behind them.
If Biden wins and the Democrats complete a sweep of Congress, we would almost certainly see Section 230 amended. We’d likely see the user-generated content immunity scrapped, but the protections against censorship lawsuits would likely remain. This is the only way social media companies can be held accountable for content without putting them at risk of lawsuits claiming they suppressed free speech.
Breaking up big tech
Big tech has come under fire for its growing control over the industry, much like big telephone companies decades ago. Seemingly anything you touch these days has some sort of connection to Apple, Google, Amazon or Facebook, and many of us carry around a portable Google search engine all day in our pocket and holler out “Hey, Google” when we can’t figure something out. That’s alarming to folks on both sides of the aisle.
Republicans and Democrats both have no love for big tech. However, like Section 230, their reasoning is different.
How President Trump feels about breaking up big tech
Trump has stopped short of outright calling for a big tech breakup, but said, “obviously there is something going on in terms of monopoly” when CNBC grilled him on the topic.
That said, he and Republicans have railed against the likes of Amazon, Google, Twitter and Facebook for a range of reasons. Most of the complaining has related to the alleged (and completely unproven) censorship of right-wing politicians and Amazon’s supposed freeloading off the struggling United States Postal Service.
How Joe Biden feels about breaking up big tech
Joe Biden is no friend of big tech, but he is friendlier than most politicians. When the Associated Press asked Biden where he stands on breaking up big tech, he said it’s “something we should take a really hard look at.” In the same breath, he also said it was too early to determine whether they needed broken up or not.
Biden’s campaign more recently spoke with Reuters and said Biden would use “all the tools available - including utilizing antitrust measures” to ensure corporations, including big tech, act responsibly.
Biden’s biggest squabble, though, is with Amazon and its $0 tax bill in 2018 on billions of billions of dollars in sales. Biden understands Amazon’s tax goose egg was perfectly legal, but he made it clear the rules need to change to ensure large corporations pay their share of taxes.
What will likely happen
There is bipartisan support for breaking up big tech, so it’s more a question of when it’ll happen, instead of if. The big sticking points are why they’re breaking them up and what restrictions big tech will be under.
The Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, a mostly Democrat committee, recently released its report on big tech’s control and had sweeping recommendations, including:
- Separating digital and commerce platforms
- Discouraging mergers resulting in 30% or more market share reduce market concentration
- Discouraging large corporations from acquiring small startups in adjacent businesses
If Trump wins re-election, we’ll likely see the continuation of the Google antitrust case. This could result in huge fines for Google along with its proposed break up into several smaller operations.
Of course, Google will fight this all the way to the Supreme Court. The outcome of this antitrust lawsuit will likely be the indicator of what all big tech can expect. If Google loses, pays billions in fines and breaks up its countless business arms, we’ll likely see similar treatment — albeit, on a smaller scale — applied to Amazon, Facebook and others.
For Joe Biden, the bipartisan support — if they can agree on the verbiage — will force his hand. He’ll likely have to sign whatever law Congress lays upon his desk about breaking up big tech, as Congress would likely have the votes it’d need to override a presidential veto.
Net neutrality repeal
In 2018, FCC chairman Ajit Pai and the republican-dominated FCC repealed net neutrality, a 2015 bill that required internet service providers to offer the same speed and accessibility to all websites.
While we have yet to see any dramatic impact from its repeal, the fact that it opens up the internet to favoritism is a scary thing. This would allow deep-pocketed corporations to buy their way to faster speeds while smaller startups struggle to grow.
But net neutrality is far from dead — It’s more on a break while we await the outcome of the election.
How President Donald Trump feels about net neutrality
In a nutshell, it was an Obama-era regulation, so you know where he stands on it.
Presidents appoint FCC commissioners and chairpeople for five-year terms, but a vacancy in any position opens floodgates for appointments. When Obama appointee Tom Wheeler resigned from his FCC chairman post, Trump appointed Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, also an Obama appointee, as chairman.
Pai’s appointment opened a commissioner seat, which Trump filled with Republican Brendan Carr. This gave Republicans the maximum 3-2 advantage allowed by law, which afforded Trump the power to do what he wanted to do: strike down net neutrality. His rationale for repealing it is he claims it limits free internet, which is a stance the entire Republican party shares.
How Joe Biden feels about net neutrality
Biden was in office as vice president when net neutrality went into law, and he continues to support it, despite remaining relatively quiet on it.
According to a Biden campaign official’s statement to CNET: "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."
It’s a relatively cut-and-dry issue for Biden, which would explain him not speaking about it often.
What will likely happen
If Trump wins re-election, it’s clear he has no interest in reinstating a law he had repealed — especially an Obama-era law. So, things will continue unchanged in a second Trump administration.
If Biden wins, he can’t push Pai out of the Chairman seat until he resigns or hits his term limit on June 30, 2021. Without a Democrat in that seat, there is little Biden can do to bring back net neutrality.
If Congress also flips to a Democrat majority, Biden could attempt an executive order targeting the repeal, but that would be a hail mary. Without a Democrat-controlled Congress, though, any Biden executive order would get killed, so he’ll have to wait until Pai’s term ends.
Once Pai’s term ends, Biden will appoint an existing Democrat commissioner as the new chairperson before the seat has time to cool off. He would then appoint a replacement Democrat commissioner in the vacant seat, giving Democrats a 3-2 majority in the FCC. The first order of business will be restoring net neutrality.
Closing the digital divide
The digital divide, which is the lack of internet connectivity in rural areas, has been an issue for a long time. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on it, exposing its downfalls as rural students struggle to attend school virtually and workers who live in rural areas battle connectivity issues when forced to work remotely.
Both candidates have promised to help close the gap, but one has solid ideas, while the other started on the path but hasn’t seen it through.
How Donald Trump feels about the digital divide
Among his numerous other platforms Trump ran on in 2016, rebuilding America’s infrastructure, including closing the digital divide with wider broadband availability, was a major one.
He started off well on the connectivity issue with executive orders sending $600 million to a 2017 USDA pilot program that eventually became the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
Despite promising $20.4 billion to help fund rural broadband, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund failed to satisfy the Senate. A bipartisan group of 24 Senators scolded into the FCC for its refusal to pass funds to areas that already received state funding for infrastructure.
The digital divide remains a gaping hole, leaving folks who live off the beaten path disconnected from reliable internet connections. However, in a briefing earlier in 2020, the White House said, “The president is committed to ensure that rural Americans are not left behind and that their communities have access to safe and reliable high-speed broadband.”
How Joe Biden feels about the digital divide
Joe Biden has been surprisingly outspoken on the digital divide, committing to spend $20 billion to close the gap by creating rural infrastructure. He’s also vowed to instruct the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the US Department of Agriculture to help build municipality-owned networks in cities and towns.
Biden also plans to encourage competition in these rural areas to help increase speed and decrease cost. This will potentially come in the form of legislation breaking up telecoms holding geographical monopolies in rural areas.
What will likely happen
President Trump has already laid the groundwork for fixing the digital divide, but it remains to be seen if he’ll focus on it or just let it fizzle during a lame-duck second term. Barring a Democrat sweep of congress forcing Trump’s hand in this area, it seems unlikely there would be much progress in his second term.
Joe Biden appears to be committed to closing the gap — at least as a candidate. It remains to be seen if this translates to President Joe Biden. This translation also relies on congressional participation, and given a bipartisan group bashed Trump for his gaffs in addressing the digital divide, it appears Biden can work with either a Democrat or Republican congress to get it done.
The big issue for Biden and a Republican Congress will be money. Republicans tend to remember their fiscally conservative roots once a Democrat is in office.
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