As the drama of the Trump administration lame duck period fades and the impressive number of troops stationed at our nation's capitol shuffle back to their respective states, the Biden administration is up and running for its first 100 days in office. The old D.C. fixture started with a bang, issuing some 15 executive orders on his first day—a new record.
With this newfound energy to hit the ground running, we can already see a few trends to expect in technology policy over the next four years. From platform policy to cryptocurrency, here are a few things to look out for as the new administration begins to shape its approach to technology and innovation in America.
Big Tech has several seats at the table
Many on the Left had hoped that the Biden administration would be an ally in its efforts to overturn the consumer welfare standard that guides antitrust proceedings in the US and take a tougher stance against Silicon Valley, which paradoxically is a stronghold of Democrat support. But if the Biden administration's transition team and rumored political appointees are any indication, we shouldn't expect Google to get broken up any time soon.
Roughly a dozen former employees from companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google held key advisor and counsel roles in the Biden transition team. This tendency may extend to government personnel, too. For instance, antitrust hawks have been dismayed that the shortlist of likely antitrust enforcers includes corporate attorneys that have helped banks and tech firms navigate antitrust cases in the past.
This is not to say that Big Tech won't see any new regulation. We may see federal privacy legislation and beefed-up government content moderation controls spring forth under the new administration. Even if companies complain, these policies would have the effect of shoring up incumbents' market positions at the expense of competitors since upstarts don't have as many resources for compliance. And the big guys might not even grumble. Most Silicon Valley companies have voiced support for a federal privacy law, whether to generate good press or to undercut California's more quixotic foray into data privacy controls.
It's not surprising that Joe Biden would continue the trend of Silicon Valley chumminess that first blossomed under the reign of his old boss, President Barack Obama. But the more progressive wing of the Democrat party may get their fair share of tech antagonists appointed as well. We'll probably see a lot of back-and-forth as the new administration attempts to appease both its corporate allies and more anti-capitalist ideological base.
We may end up with a situation that is the worst of both worlds: Big Tech animus will be exploited to justify changes to antitrust and data policies that make the overall economy less productive and competitive while largely sparing the big companies that have managed to hold the president's ear.
The net neutrality battle is back
Speaking of Silicon Valley, we can expect some of their desires to be reflected in telecom policy at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The biggest issue to look out for is a revival of the Obama administration's Open Internet Order that is often (and imprecisely) referred to as "net neutrality." Despite the doomsday warnings that internet users would be forced to cough up major dough or face snails-pace websurfing without these rules, the net neutrality debate is basically a dispute between Silicon Valley content providers (e.g. Netflix) and ISP-owned content providers (e.g. AT&T's HBOMax) over pricing arrangements. It's a battle of corporate constituencies.
The Trump administration rolled back these heavy-handed regulations on ISPs that would have probably increased the cost of broadband infrastructure expansion and therefore limited access for users with the Restoring Internet Freedom Order. None of the doomsday prophecies came to pass, of course, but that doesn't mean that the corporate dispute is resolved. Now that the Democrats are in power, the net neutrality debate is sure to rise again.
Biden's early moves on telecom indicate that net neutrality is back on the table. He hasn't said anything specific on the topic, but it's a good bet that he will support and continue the policies undertaken while he was Vice President. He appointed current commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, an outspoken net neutrality advocate, to serve as the acting chair of the FCC. And now that the Democrats have a 3-2 majority at the FCC, the rulemaking calculus is in their favor. The grounds are fertile for legislation, too, since the Democrats recently eked control of Congress as well.
Cryptocurrency: a mixed bag
Although Biden has yet to outline a detailed cryptocurrency policy plan, we have an inkling of what his policies might look like given his early appointments along with general trends in the discourse. Although his personnel picks have been mostly promising, we should expect something of a mixed bag given the overall direction of cryptocurrency regulations.
First, the good news. Biden has tapped Gary Gensler to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Gensler is a known quantity in the crypto space, having testified before Congress and penned several knowledgeable articles in cryptocurrency news outlets. He's also taught a course on cryptocurrency for MIT. If nothing else, the decisions that emanate from the SEC would be grounded in expertise under Gensler's tenure.
Rumored picks for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) are likewise at least familiar with cryptocurrencies. CFTC chair likely Chris Brummer is an expert on financial technology (fintech) and has written about cryptocurrency before. Biden's expected OCC head, Michael Barr, has a bit of a more tenuous connection with the crypto world: he served on the board of advisors for the controversial and SEC-indicted Ripple project. Still, he's at least somewhat familiar with the space, and will hopefully follow in the pro-crypto lead of his predecessor Brian Brooks.
Then there's Janet Yellen. Biden's pick for Treasury Secretary famously testified that her former roost at the Federal Reserve had no authority to regulate cryptocurrency. At the Treasury, she sings a different tune. During her nomination hearing, Yellen told Congress that Bitcoin is mainly used for "illicit financing" and that she wanted to "examine ways in which we can curtail their use and make sure that [money laundering] doesn't occur through those channels." This is troubling to hear, since the Treasury Department operates a major financial surveillance program that is coming to ensnare more cryptocurrency transactions within its dragnet.
In the short term, Biden has already given the cryptocurrency industry a bit of breathing room. He issued a freeze on "midnight regulations" proposed by the Trump administration in his waning hours in power. This includes the controversial "unhosted wallet" surveillance rules that would create a major privacy and security risk for privacy-minded cryptocurrency recipients. Still, given future Treasury Secretary Yellen's comments on money laundering, we shouldn't be surprised to see similar financial surveillance proposals under a Biden administration. In general, governments like to have control over technologies, so the tendency to want to regulate cryptocurrency will be strong regardless of who staffs the regulating agencies.
All together now
Much has been made of the Biden administration's promise to bring a "return to normalcy." As libertarians can well appreciate, this is cold comfort. Normalcy, to the establishment, means more big government, big regulation, and big headaches for private people who just want to live their lives peacefully.
There is some cause for optimism, as some of the rumored or announced personnel decisions at the very least demonstrate expertise with their administrative areas. Let's hope they wield their insight for good. If they don't, well, at least there are decentralized and encrypted alternative technologies that we can turn to. Supporting technological projects that innovate around the points of control that governments can exploit is always a better bet for freedom than crossing your fingers and hoping that federal agents show mercy to new technological applications.