Big Tech faces less room to manoeuvre

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been at the epicentre of the recent antitrust storm.

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Sat 30 Jan 2021, 7:23 PM

Now that Inauguration Day is over, and the pledge to unify Americans is taken, the Biden-Harris administration would like to see the same conciliatory tone reflected online. To achieve this, there is plenty that needs fixing. Big Tech is definitely on the agenda of the new government in a deeply divided America.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been at the epicentre of the recent antitrust storm. The law was enacted to protect the nascent Internet industry from legal liabilities of online content published by website users. This protected Internet free speech, but later gave a free pass to hate and radicalisation. Democrats saw the Capitol Hill rioting as an appalling culmination of unregulated Internet free speech. The memory of the mob vandalising the Senate chamber will be imprinted in the Democratic collective memory for a long time. It could well be the moment of reckoning for Section 230 because part of the incitement and planning happened on social media. But even before this incident, Biden had supported a complete abolition of the law.

The Trump administration had favoured an amendment to Section 230. It saw Big Tech’s content moderation, albeit tentative, as political bias. Twitter was moderating Trump’s tweets for some time. But it took an attack on the quintessential symbol of the American democracy for Twitter to deactivate his account. Google, Apple and Amazon took off Parler because right-wing pro-Trump supporters had flocked to this app after Twitter started to restrict their radical tweets. The timing of this concerted effort, ahead of Biden’s swearing-in could be indicative of Big Tech’s preemptive kneeling before the new dispensation.

Furthermore, Amazon is trying to be more amenable to President Biden, in a departure from its approach towards former President Trump. Jeff Bezos has offered help for vaccines rollout. Amazon, Google and Microsoft were among the top five contributors to the Biden campaign, though the funding was done indirectly. They didn’t contribute without wanting to influence policymaking.

Yet Biden will face pressure from left leaning Democrats to not go soft on Big Tech. Filling administrative roles with industry professionals from Google or Facebook will be tricky. Biden would need administrators who have an insider view of Big Tech, making them more competent for antitrust, content moderation and consumer privacy policymaking. President Biden has tried to strike a balance by hiring both critics and industry professionals. Former Facebook executives and critics are on the list of appointees. The appointments for top jobs in the Department of Justice’s antitrust division and Federal Trade Commission will be based on the Democratic Party’s ideologies, which have shifted to the left on key issues like worker rights and policing. Biden’s labour related firings and upcoming appointments suggest that the gig economy will see more regulation, which is worrying for the likes of Uber and Lyft. Big Tech is tacitly working to push friends into administrative positions.

The classical liberal theme of limited government is no longer tenable. Unlike former president Barrack Obama, it would be hard for President Biden to take a laissez-faire approach to Silicon Valley. Winning policy debates and getting past the narrow Democrat majority could be a challenge for Biden. However, senators and representatives of both political parties dislike Big Tech in equal measure but for different reasons. They will mostly demonstrate bipartisanship on Big Tech, which is already in legal crosshairs. Between the ongoing federal investigations and state lawsuits, Big Tech will have less room to manoeuvre.

While the vaccine roll out is top priority for President Biden, the government needs to effectively disseminate information on vaccine and policy changes. What transpires on social media will not go unattended by the new administration. But Biden is likely to rely more on regulation than on breaking up Big Tech. It would have been a different story had Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren won the Presidential election. The Biden-Harris administration has clearly moved left off Obama but not nearly as left as Sanders and Warren. President Biden will take a more moderate approach to reigning-in Big Tech. But he will face constant pressure from left-leaning Democrats. To walk the fine line, he will rely on subject matter experts that he intends to appoint.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT Technologies

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