It’s hard to focus on the nitty gritty of tech policy when the world is on fire. That doesn’t make Trump’s effect on tech policy and infrastructure any less alarming.
Take, for example, his fight against Big Tech in the name of “anti-conservative bias” (no, it doesn’t exist), which resulted in an assault on Section 230.
Experts say the true aim of those efforts was to undermine content moderation, and normalize the white supremacist attitudes that helped put people like Trump in power.
Unfortunately, those allegations will have life for years to come as a form of “zombie Trumpism,” as Berin Szoka, a senior fellow at the technology policy organization , put it. Trump may be gone from office and . But Trump allies remain in power at federal agencies and conservative media.
“The Trump agenda on tech was to create and wage a culture war,” Szoka said. “That’s the whole point of the obsession with conservative bias. And that agenda is absolutely going to continue at both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission.”
That culture war is also a symptom of his administration’s larger aim, which was always to serve Trump himself.
“The Trump agenda on tech was to create and wage a culture war.”
The White House politicized “tech policy to carry out the president’s personal agenda in a way that is a huge departure from previous administrations, and in my opinion deeply counterproductive,” said Alexandra Givens, president and CEO of the non-profit Center for Democracy and Technology.
As a result, Givens said, the U.S. has lost its standing on some of the most important issues of our time. Here’s a look at what President Joe Biden is inheriting.
The effort was widely criticized and failed. He found a more popular target in Silicon Valley. Big Tech companies absolutely warrant antitrust scrutiny for the ways they’ve degraded privacy, consumer choice, workers’ rights, and more. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was one of the first high-profile politicians to .
Trump and his allies, however, appear to be pursuing these cases as a bullying tactic.
“The timing of the Justice Department’s actions did raise real questions around what the motivations were,” Givens said.
He pointed out that many of the antitrust probes emerged just as Trump and Republicans were trying to deter companies from putting more robust content moderation in place leading up to the 2020 elections.
“That was the plan,” Szoka said. “The point was to turn up the pressure on the people inside these companies who helped to draw lines about how to deal with voter suppression, and misinformation, about the election. And I think their strategy was pretty successful.”
Americans’ privacy was nosediving when the Trump administration came into power, and it’s only fallen further since.
The Trump administration was all too happy to aid and abet this larger decline. In 2017, Trump signed a repeal of FCC privacy protections. As the Washington Post reported at the time, they would have forced internet service providers to get their customers’ consent before mining and selling their web browsing histories for ad purposes.
Failure to pass federal privacy laws during the Trump administration, despite repeated efforts in Congress, left the matter up to the states. California, for example, moved forward with the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) in 2019. Absent federal guidance, states also led the movement to ban the use of facial recognition technology.
In a transition memo to the incoming Biden administration, the Electronic Frontier Foundation argued for the passage of “robust, comprehensive federal consumer data privacy legislation with strong enforcement mechanisms.”
That message might find receptive ears. In a 2019 interview with the New York Times, Biden said that he believes Americans have a fundamental right to privacy guaranteed by the Constitution.
The Open Internet
One of the first things Ajit Pai did when he became the Republican commissioner of the FCC was that mandated true net neutrality. Net neutrality means that internet service providers have to provide users equal access to all websites, and can’t favor access to some websites over others.
This was a blow to progressives, and has already resulted in internet providers for premium internet services. Multiple states, however, have passed their own net neutrality laws, and some Democratic representatives are urging Biden’s DOJ to against California for its net neutrality policy. Lawmakers and policy advocates are also that would enshrine true net neutrality, and protect it from getting reversed every time power changes hands in the FCC.
Trump has also damaged the Open Technology Fund, a non-profit that develops and funds secure technology to advance democracy and human rights. Activists and marginalized people use products funded by the OTF to communicate. And people in countries with heavy censorship, such as China, use OTF-funded products to evade surveillance and access banned information.
The agency has long enjoyed bipartisan support and is seen as a key component of America’s foreign policy strategy. But a Trump appointee in charge of the agency that funds the OTF has . Why? It’s not exactly clear, but it could have something to do with the fact the OTF declined to fund a project from a controversial anti-China group that happens to .
“It was underreported because there’s so much other chaos going on but it’s just another example of these long standing bipartisan institutions, just suddenly being flipped on a dime so the loyalists could come in and move them towards their own ends,” Givens said.
Decisions around OTF funding are playing out now, and it’s not clear whether the Biden administration will be able to undo the damage.
When it came to cybersecurity, the Trump administration often seemed adrift.
“[I’m] not sure I can come up with a very coherent tech policy thread for this administration,” explained Josephine Wolff, a professor of cybersecurity policy at the Fletcher School of Tufts University. “I think their tech policy was generally peripheral to other more coherent threads in their worldview (i.e., hostility toward China) rather than constituting its own particular narrative.”
That hostility toward China — which Jackie Singh, the founder of Spyglass Security and former senior cybersecurity staffer in the Biden campaign, dubbed a “technology Cold War” — included an extended campaign against Huawei, and a ban on government use of ZTE technology.
And then there was the whole TikTok thing. Trump threatened to ban the popular social media app — which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance — under the guise of security concerns, a process Givens called “deeply political and cynical.”
But as with many aspects of the Trump administration, the main through-line was chaos.
“Overall, the chaotic environment introduced and maintained by the Trump admin has weakened the United States primarily due to our increased susceptibility to disinformation, which plays perfectly into the hands of our adversaries,” Singh explained. “A weakened democracy and the erosion of trust subtly harms us at the community level all the way up to the federal level.”
Singh did point out a few wins over the past four years — to ensure the integrity of the 2020 U.S. election, and to elevate the importance of cybersecurity — which she mainly credits to “patriotic public servants.”
In December, Joe Biden announced his intention to “make cybersecurity a top priority at every level of government.” It’s unclear what that will look like in practice, but the creation of a new top cybersecurity role on the National Security Council suggests that, at least for know, it’s more than just talk.
The internet has become a markedly different place over the course of the Trump administration. From the 2018 adoption of FOSTA-SESTA and the resultant purging of sex workers’ online accounts, to Facebook finally admitting it’s not a neutral platform, to a still unresolved debate about Section 230 — speech on the internet stands on a precipice.
The incoming Biden administration is ready to push it off the edge.
“Donald Trump has done tremendous harm to human rights and freedom of expression on the Internet,” Evan Greer, Fight for the Future’s deputy director, explained over email. “But he didn’t do it alone.”
Indeed, efforts to fundamentally remake the internet — often for the worse — have been a bipartisan affair.
“Over the last four years we’ve seen lawmakers from both major parties using increasingly misguided and factually incorrect rhetoric about Internet policy and foundational laws like Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act,” continued Greer. “There is nothing more dangerous for our basic rights than when politicians who barely understand technology turn crucial and complex tech policy debates into a partisan circus or a campaign talking point.”
The Trump administration has left the legal state of internet speech in disarray, and, bizarrely, managed to unite Republicans and Democrats in a misguided and cynical effort to reform or demolish Section 230. Doing so, argues Greer, would end “one of the most important laws protecting human rights and free expression in the digital age.”
Joe Biden has advocated for revoking Section 230 “immediately” — an act that would throw the entire internet into chaos by making platforms like Twitter and Facebook potentially liable for everything their users post. There are, Greer notes, real reforms — like restoring net neutrality and enforcing existing antitrust laws — which the past four years have made clear are sorely overdue.
Speech on the internet, in other words, is still on that ledge. Now it’s up to the Biden administration to decide what to do with it.
The U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy how it championed the development of artificial intelligence. It launched an AI research division of the National Science Foundation, held summits, and got Trump to sign an that basically says “do more, pay more.” In its last week, the Trump administration that federal agencies not regulate AI very much in order to prevent stifling innovation.
But critics say that Trump didn’t take the threats posed by AI seriously enough. Last year, led to the arrest of several innocent Black men. And hiring algorithms have been shown to perpetuate racial bias.
In short, Trump is encouraging growth, consequences be damned.
“America’s global leadership on AI needs to be a leadership focused not just on innovation, but on ethical and responsible use,” Givens said. “We need the new administration to come in with that as a top priority to give clear guidance about the risk of discriminatory effects to think in a more coherent way about what accountability and transparency looks like.”
“Science, at its core, is a social phenomenon… When we provide inputs to the algorithm, when we program the device, when we design, test, and research, we are making human choices.” —Alondra Nelson, Deputy Director for Science & Society @ASAnews https://t.co/aqId7l4pk0
— Ruha Benjamin (@ruha9) January 16, 2021
Drones and autonomous vehicles
The White House launched a drone testing program in 2017 that partnered state and local governments with tech companies.
That led to new restrictions on flying over people and at night. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also now requires most drones to share identifying and flight information with government agencies.
It also allowed some companies to operate drones without anybody present along the flight path, clearing the path for drone deliveries.
Companies such as Amazon and Google’s Wing are eager to use delivery drones. The Biden administration has done little to indicate it will stand in their way.
As for self-driving cars, in Trump’s last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued rules that removed prior limits on testing autonomous vehicles that only carry cargo, and those without steering wheels and brakes.
When the pandemic forced many workers and students inside, expanding broadband internet access became even more vital.
The FCC said 21 million Americans didn’t have broadband in 2017, down from 26 million the year before. But experts and the Government Accountability Office say the agency’s method for collecting that data was flawed. A separate from 2019 places the number at 162 million.
Internet service providers have resisted building the infrastructure needed for broadband in rural areas where there aren’t many potential customers.
Trump actually slowed broadband expansion in 2018, when his insistence for $5.7 billion for his border wall led to a government shutdown.
The Trump administration also gave Starlink, SpaceX’s satellite internet service, to improve rural broadband access. While early connection speeds look promising, the satellites could contribute to Earth’s “” problem, and make it harder for astronomers to do their jobs.
The previously estimated that it would cost approximately $80 billion to bring broadband to every U.S. household. Biden’s current infrastructure plan calls for committing $20 billion to expanding access to high-speed internet.