Governance & Soft Law

In a five-part series at the American Action Forum, I presented prior to the 2020 presidential election the candidates’ positions on a range of tech policy topics including: the race to 5GSection 230antitrust, and the sharing economy. Now that the election is over, it is time to examine what topics in tech policy will gain more attention and how the debate around various tech policy issues may change. In no particular order, here are five key tech policy issues to be aware of heading into a new administration and a new Congress. 

The Use of Soft Law for Tech Policy 

In 2021, it is likely America will still have a divided government with Democrats controlling the White House and House of Representatives and Republicans expected to narrowly control the Senate. The result of a divided government, particularly between the two houses of Congress, will likely be that many tech policy proposals face logjams. The result will likely be that many of the questions of tech policy lack the legislation or hard law framework that might be desired. As a result, we are likely to continue to see “soft law”—regulation by various sub-regulatory means such as guidance documents, workshops, and industry consultations—rather than formal action. While it appears we will see more formal regulatory action from the administrative state as well in a Biden Administration, these actions require quite a process through comments and formal or informal rulemaking. As technology continues to accelerate, many agencies turn to soft law to avoid “pacing problems” where policy cannot react as quickly as technology and rules may be outdated by the time they go into effect. 

A soft law approach can be preferable to a hard law approach as it is often able to better adapt to rapidly changing technologies. Policymakers in this new administration, however, should work to ensure that they are using this tool in a way that enables innovation and that appropriate safeguards ensure that these actions do not become a crushing regulatory burden. 

Return of the Net Neutrality Debate 

One key difference between President Trump and President-elect Biden’s stances on tech policy concerns whether the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) should categorize internet service providers (ISPs) as Title II “common carrier services,” thereby enabling regulations such as “net neutrality” that places additional requirements on how these service providers can prioritize data. President-elect Biden has been clear in the past that he favors reinstating net neutrality. 

The imposition of this classification and regulations occurred during the Obama Administration and the FCC removed both the classification under Title II and the additional regulations for “net neutrality” during the Trump Administration. Critics of these changes made many hyperbolic claims at the time such as that Netflix would be interrupted or that ISPs would use the freedom in a world without net neutrality to block abortion resources or pro-feminist groups. These concerns have proven to be misguided. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the benefits to building a robust internet infrastructure and expanded investment that a light-touch approach has yielded. 

It is likely that net neutrality will once again be debated. Beyond just the imposition of these restrictions, a repeated change in such a key classification could create additional regulatory uncertainty and deter or delay investment and innovation in this valuable infrastructure. To overcome such concerns, congressional action could help fashion certainty in a bipartisan and balanced way to avoid a back-and-forth of such a dramatic nature. 

Debates Regarding Sharing Economy Providers Classification as Independent Contractors 

California voters passed Proposition 22 undoing the misguided reclassification of app-based service drivers as employees rather than independent contractors under AB5; during the campaign, however, President-elect Biden stated that he supports AB5 and called for a similar approach nationwide. Such an approach would make it more difficult on new sharing economy platforms and a wide range of independent workers (such as freelance journalists) at a time when the country is trying to recover economically.  

Changing classifications to make it more difficult to consider service providers as independent contractors makes it less likely that platforms such as Fiverr or TaskRabbit could provide platforms for individuals to offer their skills. This reclassification as employees also misunderstands the ways in which many people choose to engage in gig economy work and the advantages that flexibility has. As my AAF colleague Isabel Soto notes, the national costs of a similar approach found in the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act “could see between $3.6 billion and $12.1 billion in additional costs to businesses” at a time when many are seeking to recover during the recession. Instead, both parties should look for solutions that continue to allow the benefits of the flexible arrangements that many seek in such work, while allowing for creative solutions and opportunities for businesses that wish to provide additional benefits to workers without risking reclassification. 

Shifting Conversations and Debates Around Section 230 

Section 230 has recently faced most of its criticism from Republicans regarding allegations of anti-conservative bias. President-elect Biden, however, has also called to revoke Section 230 and to set up a taskforce regarding “Online Harassment and Abuse.” While this may seem like a positive step to resolving concerns about online content, it could also open the door to government intervention in speech that is not widely agreed upon and chip away at the liability protection for content moderation. 

For example, even though the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act was targeting the heinous crime of sex trafficking (which was already not subject to Section 230 protection) was aimed at companies such as Backpage where it was known such illegal activity was being conducted, it has resulted in legitimate speech such as Craigslist personal ads being removed  and companies such as Salesforce being subjected to lawsuits for what third parties used their product for. A carveout for hate speech or misinformation would only pose more difficulties for many businesses. These terms to do not have clearly agreed-upon meanings and often require far more nuanced understanding for content moderation decisions. To enforce changes that limit online speech even on distasteful and hateful language in the United States would dramatically change the interpretation of the First Amendment that has ruled such speech is still protected and would result in significant intrusion by the government for it to be truly enforced. For example, in the UK, an average of nine people a day were questioned or arrested over offensive or harassing “trolling” in online posts, messages, or forums under a law targeting online harassment and abuse such as what the taskforce would be expected to consider. 

Online speech has provided new ways to connect, and Section 230 keeps the barriers to entry low. It is fair to be concerned about the impact of negative behavior, but policymakers should also recognize the impact that online spaces have had on allowing marginalized communities to connect and be concerned about the unintended consequences changes to Section 230 could have. 

Continued Antitrust Scrutiny of “Big Tech” 

One part of the “techlash” that shows no sign of diminishing in the new administration or new Congress is using antitrust to go after “Big Tech.” While it remains to be seen if the Biden Department of Justice will continue the current case against Google, there are indications that they and congressional Democrats will continue to go after these successful companies with creative theories of harm that do not reflect the current standards in antitrust. 

Instead of assuming a large and popular company automatically merits competition scrutiny  or attempting to utilize antitrust to achieve policy changes for which it is an ill-fitted tool, the next administration should return to the principled approach of the consumer welfare standard. Under such an approach, antitrust is focused on consumers and not competitors. In this regard, companies would need to be shown to be dominant in their market, abusing that dominance in some ways, and harming consumers. This approach also provides an objective standard that lets companies and consumers know how actions will be considered under competition law. With what is publicly known, the proposed cases against the large tech companies fail at least one element of this test. 

There will likely be a shift in some of the claimed harms, but unfortunately scrutiny of large tech companies and calls to change antitrust laws to go after these companies are likely to continue. 

Conclusion 

There are many other technology and innovation issues the next administration and Congress will see. These include not only the issues mentioned above, but emerging technologies like 5G, the Internet of Things, and autonomous vehicles. Other issues such as the digital divide provide an opportunity for policymakers on both sides of the aisle to come together and have a beneficial impact and think of creative and adaptable solutions. Hopefully, the Biden Administration and the new Congress will continue a light-touch approach that allows entrepreneurs to engage with innovative ideas and continues American leadership in the technology sector.