The global coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in the deaths of nearly 200,000 Americans, has largely dominated the political debate. With the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday, the political conversation has now shifted to the battle over filling her seat on the court. Meanwhile, the tech world will be holding its breath to see whether President Donald Trump can pull out a victory. That’s because even if topics like net neutrality and rural broadband aren’t hot political issues, a second Trump term could have a huge impact on technology’s direction.
Even though tech policy may not be at the forefront of voters’ minds, whoever wins the presidential election will have a lot of influence on what happens in technology over the coming years. This includes everything from setting infrastructure policy on broadband deployment to foreign policy and national security issues involving China as well as what, if any, regulation is imposed on social media giants. Big tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter are already being scrutinized by Democrats and Republicans, as lawmakers on both sides look to rein in their power.
The COVID-19 crisis, which has led to rapid adoption of telemedicine and virtual education, has also shined a light on the digital divide preventing millions of Americans from accessing high-speed internet. That will be a big issue for either Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee.
So far, Biden has remained relatively quiet on tech, although many experts expect he will revert back to many Obama-era policies. (You can read about Biden’s views on tech here).
President Trump, on the other hand, has a more defined track record as the incumbent.
Here’s a closer look at what we know about Trump’s positions on Big Tech regulation, the digital divide, the push toward 5G wireless and clashes with China.
The hallmark of the Trump presidency when it comes to policy has been the quick pace with which he’s deregulated many industries, including the tech sector.
The biggest example was the rollback of Obama-era net neutrality rules. Within the first month of Trump taking office, the Federal Communications Commission repealed a net neutrality decision approved under President Barack Obama. These rules were meant to preserve an open internet and prevent broadband companies from limiting access to content or charging companies extra to deliver traffic to consumers. The rules also gave the FCC more authority to police the internet and treat it more like a public utility.
In October last year, when a federal appeals court upheld the FCC’s reversal of the rules, Trump congratulated the FCC on Twitter and called it a big win for the future of the internet, including 5G wireless.
Within months of taking office, Trump’s FCC rolled back several Obama-era protections, including broadband privacy rules and subsidies for some broadband and wireless providers as part of the federal Lifeline program.
Section 230 and social media
A big exception to the current administration’s deregulatory agenda is Trump’s executive order that points toward greater regulation of social media companies. That order, signed in May, asks for a reinterpretation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives online platforms, like Facebook, legal immunity for content posted by third-party users. The statute also gives these companies legal cover to make good-faith efforts to moderate their platforms.
Trump has long argued that social media giants are biased against conservatives. The executive order is directly targeted at Twitter and Facebook, which have labeled some Trump statements as false, misleading or in violation of company guidelines. Specifically, Trump is asking the FCC to use its regulatory authority to “limit legal protections for social media platforms if they don’t adhere to standards of neutrality.” But it’s unclear how those “neutrality” standards would be defined or enforced. The FCC is considering public comment on a proposal introduced by the Commerce Department.
It’s unclear if the Republican-led FCC will vote in favor of the proposal. Only one commissioner, Brendan Carr, has expressed support. In August, Trump pulled the renomination of Republican Michael O’Rielly, who had previously been nominated for a third term by Trump, after O’Rielly publicly expressed concern that the order could empower the FCC to further regulate content on social media platforms.
“As a conservative, I’m troubled voices are stifled by liberal tech leaders,” O’Rielly tweeted in May. “At same time, I’m extremely dedicated to First Amendment which governs much here.”
Last week, Trump announced his intent to nominate Nathan Simington, who currently serves as a senior adviser in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, as O’Reilly’s replacement. Simington played a significant role in drafting the petition the FCC is considering.
All of this comes as Trump pushes to ban various Chinese tech companies from the US market, including ByteDance, which owns the short-form video app TikTok. In the past month, Trump’s administration has issued two executive orders that would bar ByteDance from operating TikTok in the US if it doesn’t sell its US operations. App stores were supposed to stop allowing downloads or updates to the TikTok app starting Sunday.
In the 11th hour, Trump approved a deal for Oracle and Walmart to acquire stakes in the US operations of TikTok, postponing the ban. This followed weeks of speculation and efforts by US and Chinese authorities to come to an agreement that would allow the apps to continue operating.
US Intelligence agencies say that Chinese authorities could collect data through TikTok, but there’s no evidence they’ve done so, according to The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal found that the TikTok app for Android surreptitiously collected device identifiers known as MAC addresses. The practice ended in November. Politicians have raised concerns that the Chinese government could use the app to spy on US citizens or spread propaganda during an election year.
Trump has also pushed to ban Chinese telecom infrastructure provider Huawei, citing similar security concerns. National security experts warn that Chinese government could use Huawei gear to spy on Americans and their allies or to cause communication outages.
Huawei was blacklisted last year by the US when it was added to the United States’ “entity list” (PDF). Trump also signed an executive order essentially banning the company in light of national security concerns that Huawei had close ties with the Chinese government. Huawei has repeatedly denied that charge.
National security or trade war?
Trump has been inconsistent when it comes to China. Early in his administration, he talked up his relationship with President Xi Jinping and boasted about negotiating a trade deal with China.
But then the US and China got entangled in a trade war. Trump has used tariffs — which are taxes that importers in the US must pay to customs when imported goods arrive from China — as a tool to put pressure on the Chinese government.
A year ago, a 15% tariff on about $125 billion worth of goods went into effect. An additional 15% tariff on products like cellphones, laptop and tablet computers, and toys was set to take effect last December unless the US and China reached a deal. The new round of tariffs would have likely hit retailers and consumers in the first half of 2020.
And then the pandemic hit, and tensions continue as Trump publicly blames China for the coronavirus, calling it the “China virus.”
The race to 5G
Trump’s White House and FCC have also been big proponents of US leadership in 5G, the next generation of wireless technology. Most of the Trump administration’s efforts in 5G have been around spectrum policy and trying to free up as much of the airwaves as possible to be used for the new networks.
But some critics say the FCC hasn’t moved quickly enough in getting critical midband spectrum — the kind of “sweet spot” radio frequencies that T-Mobile purchased Sprint for that offer a good mix of higher speeds and wider range. The agency held its first auction on midband spectrum for 5G in the 3.5 GHz band. This spectrum is considered critical to 5G because its propagation properties allow for longer transmission of signals that won’t be as susceptible as higher-frequency spectrum to interference from obstacles like weather or even leaves on trees.
In August, the White House and the Defense Department announced they were collaborating to reallocate a big swath of midband spectrum used by the military for commercial 5G service. The plan calls for the auction to be held by December 2021, a timeline the administration called “unprecedented.”
But the Trump administration’s quest to dominate in 5G has also gotten tied up in the trade war and national security issues with China.
In early 2018, there were rumors that Trump’s national security advisers had floated the idea of building a government-owned 5G network. The government-run network would supposedly protect emerging technologies that will rely on super-fast 5G, like self-driving cars and ensure the US remains a leader in wireless. But that idea was quickly batted down.
Instead, Trump has focused on shoring up the US’ technology leadership over China. It’s why Trump blocked the takeover of mobile chip giant Qualcomm by then-Singapore-based Broadcom. (It relocated to the US in 2018.)
The Trump administration has also been looking to give a boost to non-Chinese infrastructure equipment makers, such as Ericsson and Nokia . Earlier this year the administration reportedly met with US networking companies such as Cisco to discuss the acquisition of Ericsson and Nokia, both based in Europe. It’s also looking into giving tax breaks and financing to Ericsson and Nokia, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.
Digital divide: Rural broadband
Trump pledged during the 2016 campaign to deliver broadband to rural Americans as part of a trillion-dollar national infrastructure package. Trump has also pushed 5G as a way to get rural America connected to broadband.
But Trump’s big infrastructure plan has gone nowhere in Congress. And Democrats have criticized the Republican-led FCC for not deploying broadband quickly enough. They also say that the Republicans have done little to get poor Americans connected to the internet, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis when people are relying on the internet to work, attend class and even meet with their doctors.
At a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on Thursday, Democrats bashed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for failing to take action during the COVID-19 crisis to help low-income Americans stay connected during the pandemic. They also criticized Pai for not allowing funding that goes to schools and libraries through the federal E-rate program to be used to purchase, laptops , Wi-Fi hotspots and other tools that students could use for remote learning. They also faulted the agency for doing too little to make broadband more accessible.
“Instead of trying to make broadband more affordable and protect consumers,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, of New Jersey, who chairs the House Commerce Committee, “I’m afraid that the FCC under Republican leadership has focused on advancing corporate interest.”
Video: Trump administration to ban TikTok and WeChat from U.S. app stores (CBS News)