What a President Biden Would Do to Big Tech

What the big tech antitrust report would mean with Biden in charge.

Try as I might to get the Biden campaign to respond to the House’s big tech antitrust report, I came up empty this week. After multiple emails — and a tweet — it was crickets from Team Biden on what could be one of his most significant policy decisions, if elected. 

No doubt, Joe & Co. were busy. The Vice Presidential debate approached on Wednesday, and a second debate with the Covid-stricken President Trump loomed. Still, the House Democrats put forth one of the boldest policy documents in recent memory, one advocating for a rewrite of U.S antitrust laws. It was fair to wonder what the man who said “I am the Democratic Party” would do with his peers’ recommendations if given the opportunity.

The Biden campaign’s response, or lack thereof, was indicative of its disinterested approach to tech giant accountability. Biden’s said almost nothing about these companies on his website and in his speeches. He has no clear tech policy advisors. He ran and won against Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s “break them up” message, with no attempt to co-opt it. At a certain point, if elected, he’ll have to reckon with his party’s growing wariness of tech giant power. But Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google — his potential targets — don’t exactly seem fearful. 

"It is not a topic of focus in any meeting, which includes meetings where it would be a natural discussion point,” one tech giant executive told me, of this week’s report.

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The House Antitrust Subcommittee’s report — written and signed by Democrats — is a powerful document with policy prescriptions that Biden will evaluate if he wins (Yes, still a big “if”). Calling the tech giants monopolists, the report recommends a broad overhaul of the laws that govern these companies today. It suggests new limits on their ability to acquire smaller competitors, restrictions on their capacity to sell their own goods in their marketplaces, expanded antitrust laws that cover harm to workers and innovation not simply “consumers,” and, critically, funding increases to regulators like the Federal Trade Commision that can’t function properly due to severe resource constraints.

So far, Biden’s given little indication he has the stomach for major action against the tech giants. Questioned about the tech giants’ power earlier this year, he expressed a desire to revoke CDA Section 230, which grants them immunity for third party content on their sites, but provided little detail beyond that poorly thought out aspiration. “The tech industry, look, not everyone in the tech industry is a bad guy, and I’m not suggesting that,” Biden told The New York Times. “What I’m suggesting is that some of the things that are going on are simply wrong and require government regulation.” His focus then returned to content moderation, not competition policy. 

The Biden campaign has already met with the House Democrats to discuss their report, but a President Biden would have some priorities before tech regulation. We’re living through the greatest health, economic, and political crisis of our time, and tackling those issues would be first on the agenda. Tech antitrust would come sometime after that.

In a quirk, Congress itself might be the most likely entity to push antitrust action forward, even if Biden isn’t quite there himself. In this do-nothing legislative session — where split control of the House and Senate ensured a lawmaking standstill — the Antitrust Subcommittee used its time to develop a blueprint it knew wouldn’t lead to immediate action, but could be useful eventually. The momentum won’t quickly dissipate, especially with Republicans like Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado signaling a willingness to work with his opponents. There’s optimism inside Congress today that something will get done.

“The document creates a range of options,” one Congressional aide told me. “At a minimum, it sets up an aggressive agenda, regardless of the outcome of the election, and the potential for bipartisan movement on a series of reforms.”

For big reforms like tech antirust to go through, everything must line up. The Democrats and Republicans can’t sign a report together today, let alone a draft bill. So it might take a Democrat sweep of the House, Senate, and White House in November to give this a shot. Drastic change, even in that case, seems unlikely given Biden’s record. There’s still a chance he delivers a full-throated endorsement of the House report. Until then, trust the silence.

Further Reading: 

I enjoyed these perspectives on the House report: 

Congress Gets Ready to Smash Big Tech Monopolies, by Matt Stoller in Big

Congress Agrees: Big Tech Is Broken. By Shira Ovide in The New York Times

On CNBC: Talking Tech Antitrust With Kelly Evans

I stopped by CNBC on Wednesday to discuss tech antitrust with Kelly Evans on The Exchange. My main point: If the only thing that comes out of this process is additional funding for the FTC and DOJ’s antitrust efforts, that’s still a major success.

Stopping Home

I’m in New York City this week to see family for the first time since the Covid outbreak began. I remember leaving here in February and preparing myself mentally for a quarantine period. But even after watching reports out of China, Iran, and Italy, I couldn’t imagine something this long, or so hard. Though six feet apart, it was a joy to see my parents and brother again after so many months of FaceTime. With no end in sight, it was also hard not to feel a bit sad. I’m sure you’re all in similar situations, waiting for the moment we can return to normal. I’m hoping we see more progress soon so we can hug our families and friends again without worrying about getting them sick. 

This Week On the Big Technology Podcast: ‘Social Dilemma’ Star Tristan Harris

You won’t find a more controversial film in Silicon Valley than The Social Dilemma. The film, now available on Netflix, features confessions from early consumer internet employees who rue the destruction their inventions have wrought. 

The film’s portrayal of social media causing conflict, isolation, nationalism, and disaster has resonated with a broad audience. But tech insiders say it’s guilty of many of the practices it decries, stoking fear and outrage in exchange for mass appeal. 

To address the film and its critiques, Tristan Harris, its star and the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, sat down for an interview on the Big Technology Podcast with no questions off-limits.

You can listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Overcast. And read the transcript on OneZero.

Tips, comments, suggestions? 

I decided to cover the potential Biden administration’s approach to tech antitrust this week since we’ve seen four years of Trump’s approach. Was it the right call? Did I miss anything?

I welcome your thoughts after each issue. Feel free to send tips and ideas by replying directly to this email (or use alex.kantrowitz@gmail.com) and they’ll come right to my inbox.