This analysis was first published in SvD Näringsliv, in Swedish, on January 23rd, 2021.
“I think he’s a real problem.” Joe Biden’s statement about Mark Zuckerberg means that the gloves are off in the battle between Washington and Silicon Valley.
Suddenly, almost everything felt normal again. Just a couple of hours had passed since Joe Biden took over as president when Twitter began filling up with jokes. Not least thanks to the historical photos of Bernie Sanders, who was wearing a winter jacket and mittens during the ceremony. Twitter breathed a sigh of relief after four years of chaos.
It will likely be a brief break, especially for the tech companies’ executives who will probably need to take a deep breath and prepare for the next two years. Much is at stake and all political power is currently with one party – the Democrats control the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Everyone can agree that these are important issues to be settled. The amount that tech companies spend on lobbying has increased as Silicon Valley has become even more visible on Washington’s political agenda. Today it amounts to about $80 million – up over 600 percent since 2005. That is more than the financial world or the automotive industry spends.
The tech companies are now looking closer at three key points.
1: The tech companies do not want to split up – but can ask for more regulation.
There is already a historic lawsuit running against Google. It’s about them being the default search engine in many browsers. This is considered to be the first of many similar processes where other companies will soon come into focus. Joe Biden’s view of Facebook, for example, became clear when he commented on its CEO Mark Zuckerberg with the words “I think he’s a real problem” and the addition “I have never been a fan of Facebook.”
Here, Facebook’s lobbyists are might pursue a, for many, surprising line of argument – to expand the regulation of tech companies. One can see legislation as a way to limit the power of individual companies, but one can also see it as a way to keep new companies out of the market. Dealing with complex legislation is expensive, something that Facebook can afford. Smaller competitors do not necessarily have the same financial muscles. The regulation could thus prevent small companies from growing, even if that isn’t the intention.
Additionally, there is political momentum from both political sides regarding these issues. The question arose even before Biden took power, when the lobby group American Economic Liberties Project released a series of reports that specifically pointed to the problems that arise from increased power centering around Amazon, Google and Facebook.
The work of the lobby group is led by Sarah Miller. She worked closely with Joe Biden in his transition team, regarding issues such as the size and position of tech companies.
2: A disputed law gets torn up – and to the delight of the tech giants gets a cumbersome replacement.
After the storming of the Capitol, it is clear that the current legislation is not only inadequate, but can also be directly detrimental to democracy. The storming was planned on the tech companies’ platforms, without being able to hold them accountable at all. The issue falls under Section 230 – a law that decouples tech companies from what is said on their services.
In an interview with the New York Times, Joe Biden said that “Section 230 should be revoked immediately.” He also approached the EU by saying that “we should set standards, not different ones that Europeans have in terms of integrity”. A welcome position for the EU after years of more frosty transatlantic diplomacy. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has called Biden an “ally” when it comes to regulating tech companies. This is an opening for more international co-operation regarding legislation.
Taking responsibility for what is expressed on one’s platform is time consuming and expensive, but not impossible. It is therefore conceivable that the large companies do not lobby to keep Section 230, but ensure that the law that replaces it becomes cumbersome to follow. It would also benefit large and resourceful companies – those who also primarily lobby in Washington.
3: Return to pole position in the international talent hunt.
As one of his first actions, Joe Biden extended DACA – the law that was enacted during Barack Obama’s time in the White House and that gives children with parents without residence permits a path to American citizenship. Apple CEO Tim Cook noted with satisfaction that “we welcome President Biden’s commitment to push through comprehensive immigration reforms that reflect the American values of justice and dignity.”
Although the tech companies have some employees who are affected by DACA, their interest in these issues is mainly about labor immigration.
The tech companies have a hard time finding enough engineers and have become dependent on visas that allow people from other countries to work in Silicon Valley. Donald Trump severely limited the number of visas issued, which created major problems when it came to recruitment. Here it is up to the tech companies to quickly ensure that the political power enables international talent hunting again. Something you have been lagging behind since Trump’s changes.
Three points – three battles. The fight can begin.
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