On the morning of Oct. 28, Big Tech CEOs will (virtually) trudge back to Washington DC to face another bipartisan grilling from US Congress members. In July, the House of Representatives questioned executives about anti-competitive practices. This time, senators will interrogate them about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which allows social media platforms to host and moderate user-generated content on their websites while shielding the firms from responsibility for what their users say.
Republicans are out to avenge what they describe as a campaign by internal moderators to censor Republican points of view on social media. (There is no evidence for this claim.) Meanwhile, Democrats want to roll back Section 230 to hold Big Tech companies responsible for the disinformation that spreads on their platforms. (There are heaps of evidence to support this critique.) For the umpteenth time this year, the parties will join together in pillorying tech companies—this time, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube-owner Google—with equal fervor but divergent reasoning.
So, after a bruising year, to which party can a benighted Big Tech CEO turn for support? Who is the champion of Silicon Valley’s most powerful interests in the upcoming presidential election?
The short answer is, it depends which of the industry’s mounting headaches they’re most concerned with.
Both US president Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden have called for Section 230’s demise. In January, Biden told the New York Times, “Section 230 should be revoked, immediately.” In May, Trump issued an executive order directing the Federal Communications Commission to revisit the rule and tweeted “REVOKE 230!”
Revoking the rule would create immediate legal headaches for platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, whose business models depend on vacuuming up content from billions of users and sharing it on feeds with limited oversight. To avoid that doomsday scenario, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the company welcomes stronger regulation to curb harmful content—opening the door to a truce with reform-minded Democrats who have called for tweaks to Section 230 that curb disinformation but stop short of a repeal.
Trump has already issued his order, and Republicans are rallying around revoking Section 230 in the final week of the campaign. It would seem that Silicon Valley’s best bet for preserving their liability protections would be to strike a deal with Democrats and convince Biden to walk back his earlier statements—which he has so far refused to do.
Both parties have targeted Big Tech companies with antitrust investigations, although they’ve used different arguments to make their cases to the public.
Democrats in the US House of Representatives released an extensive report accusing Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon of amassing monopoly power to stifle competition, and proposed an overhaul of US laws that would make it easier to break the companies up. Republican representatives made similar claims, but spent much more of their time in hearings zeroing in on the issue of what they perceive as anti-conservative bias.
Meanwhile, under the direction of Trump’s attorney general Bill Barr, the Department of Justice sued Google over its alleged monopoly on search and online advertising. “That suit was much narrower and more targeted than most people expected,” said Mark Lemley, who directs the Stanford Program in Law, Science, and Technology. “So if your only worry was antitrust enforcement against you, the big companies probably have more to fear from the Democrats (though small companies in Silicon Valley might see that as something to celebrate, not fear).” Neither candidate is likely to slow the monopoly-busting momentum, which has been building for years, but Lemley says a Biden administration could bring a more comprehensive complaint.
The trade war with China
The Trump administration has done little to endear itself to Silicon Valley by trading tit-for-tat tariffs with Beijing. The trade war has dried up investment flows, snarled supply chains, and raised the cost of doing business.
“China is really the partner of American high tech companies for manufacturing and assembly, but also as consumers,” said Michael Cusumano, a deputy dean at MIT’s Sloan School of Management who has written several books about the inner workings of Silicon Valley businesses. “The administrations before Trump have not imposed these kinds of tariffs or restrictions that Trump has, and they actually harm business.”
With the possible exception of Oracle—which gained a crucial cloud computing contract thanks to the Trump administration’s attempt to wrest control of TikTok away from its Chinese owners—most Big Tech firms would likely prefer Biden’s less disruptive brand of foreign policy. The Democrat is expected to ratchet down the trade war, although he will still face internal pressure to confront Beijing on its economic practices and human rights record.
Trump has further antagonized Silicon Valley by cutting off immigrant work visas during the pandemic, targeting the H-1B visas that many tech firms rely on to attract top talent from around the world. The president later announced new, stringent H-1B visa requirements that would significantly raise the cost of hiring foreign workers even after the pandemic.
“The motivation there has been to try to create or keep more jobs for American workers, but the problem from the tech industry perspective is that we don’t have enough of a lot of those experts in software engineering or artificial intelligence,” Cusumano said. “We need those visas.”
Biden, for his part, has vowed to expand the number of visas granted and ensure that foreign students in science, technology, engineering, and math are exempt from visa caps—which is sure to be a welcome prospect for Big Tech firms.
While antitrust investigations and a brawl over Section 230 have dominated recent headlines, Lemley says these may not be the biggest worries for tech executives in the upcoming election. “My guess is that other economic issues will loom large for Silicon Valley—trade wars and China, high-tech immigration, education, and the US standing in the world. The Democrats are better for US businesses down the line on each of those issues.”
At the very least, a Biden victory would represent a strong return on investment for the employees of Big Tech companies, who have directed 95% of their 2020 campaign contributions to the Democrat.