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Though the margins are tight, the incoming president may nominate more progressive candidates for certain positions, experts say.
When President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are sworn in on Jan. 20, they’ll have a small Democratic majority in the House and—thanks to two runoff wins in Georgia—a 50-50 Senate where Harris will serve as a potential tiebreaker.
The duo has already stated its highest priorities will be combatting COVID-19, fostering economic recovery and addressing racial equity and climate change. While Biden has not laid out concrete plans for federal IT and tech policy yet, experts generally believe Democratic control of Congress will ensure significant government investment in IT modernization at the federal, state and local levels.
“We’re likely going to see a much bigger effort in investment in better e-government and systems, as the federal, state and local levels have been crying out for improvements and modernization,” said Rob Atkinson, president of the nonpartisan Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. “Having the Senate in Democratic control makes that more likely to happen.”
Aaron Cooper, vice president of global policy at BSA | The Software Alliance, added that Senate and House control give Biden “an easier pathway” to approve economic stimulus packages. A preview of Biden’s investment priorities could come soon after his inauguration in the form of another COVID-19 relief bill. Cooper added that because most issues in the government tech space “are inherently bipartisan,” he did not think the Senate’s slim Democratic edge would significantly “change what the administration’s policies will be.” A slim majority, he said, is not enough to ram single-party legislation through Congress.
“To get anything big passed is going to require 60 votes in the Senate, so bipartisanship is going to have to happen on anything big,” Cooper said.
Democratic control of the Senate also gives Biden added flexibility in filling the cabinet and other high-level appointments who could impact the tech industry, Cooper said. Biden could appoint more progressive personnel to head regulatory and administrative agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission. In particular, the FTC could have an outsized impact on large tech companies over the next four years, especially if Congress opts to imbue it with more authority as some experts expect.
“On the regulatory side, the FTC chair will be an incredibly important role for our industry, and on the consumer protection and antitrust sides, the Democratic Senate would give the president-elect more leeway to decide what kind of person he wants to have in those roles,” Cooper said. “I don’t think that will mean we’ll start seeing Biden appoint non-centrist people, but it does make the process smoother for him.”
Atkinson said he expects a Biden administration to make a bigger push on antitrust policy, and “more scrutiny of large firms and mergers” in the tech industry. He added that he expects Biden to appoint “more liberal” personnel to the FTC or FCC to placate the progressive wing of the Democratic party.
Matt Schettenhelm, senior analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence, said Democratic control of Congress and the executive branch ups the odds for privacy legislation or executive action that would—at a minimum—force more stringent transparency standards upon big tech companies.
“There is the prospect for legitimate federal (privacy) regulation for the first time, but it is not likely to be too disruptive (to big tech),” Schettenhelm said.
Twitter, Facebook, Google and other large tech companies have come under scrutiny in recent years by both Democrats and Republicans for various reasons, in part because of the large amount of influence and power they wield. The big tech debate renewed in recent days after major social media outlets restricted—and in some cases, outright banned—content from President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection by his supporters. The debate over internet content, liability and censorship is unlikely to subside anytime soon, Schettenhelm said, and is likely to arise in various compromises.
At times, Trump and Biden have rallied against Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 is a federal law that provides a liability shield to social media companies and websites for content posted on their platforms by their users. Schettenhelm said that while a repeal of the law is unlikely, changes to it are “likely to be in play.” Those changes could be in forcing social media platforms to “earn the liability shield” that protects them through increased transparency about the content on their platforms and the data they collect from users.
“We’re likely to see lawmakers play around with the idea of requiring companies to be more transparent about how they police harmful content on their networks, and be more explicit about efforts they’re taking to address what may be of harm to their networks,” Schettenhelm said.
Cooper said he expects the Biden administration to focus directly on cybersecurity and supply chain issues following a widespread hack of government agencies purportedly carried out by a foreign government. Following the hack—the investigation of which remains ongoing—Biden said he would “elevate cybersecurity as an imperative across the government.” To make good on that promise, Cooper said he expects the Biden administration to focus on cybersecurity best practices while pushing “companies and individuals to do more to keep networks secure.” Cooper added that he expects the admin to ensure secure software development and focus narrowly on ransomware attacks.
Frank Konkel is Nextgov’s executive editor.