Biden calls for bipartisan legislation to keep Big Tech in check

The president urged Democrats and Republicans to 'find common ground" and protect privacy, competition and kids.

Jonathan Ernst / reuters

In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, President Joe Biden has called on Democrats and Republicans who are sitting in Congress to set aside their differences and work on strong bipartisan legislation to keep major technology companies in check — without calling any businesses out by name. While he said he was proud of the success of the American tech industry, Biden expressed concern about how some actors "collect, share and exploit our most personal data, deepen extremism and polarization in our country, tilt our economy’s playing field, violate the civil rights of women and minorities and even put our children at risk."

Biden has pinpointed three areas that he says require reform, starting with privacy. He argued that "serious federal protections" are needed in this area, including "clear limits on how companies can collect, use and share highly personal data," such as location, browsing history and communications, as well as health, biometric and genetic data. Biden says companies shouldn't be collecting much of that data at all.

"These protections should be even stronger for young people, who are especially vulnerable online," Biden wrote. "We should limit targeted advertising and ban it altogether for children." Just yesterday, Meta said Facebook and Instagram could still target teens with ads based on their age and location, but not their gender.

In discussing the need for "Big Tech companies to take responsibility for the content they spread and the algorithms they use," the president reiterated his belief that lawmakers should reform Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms from liability for what their users do. In the leadup to the 2020 election, Biden claimed that he would see Section 230 "revoked, immediately" if he became president. While that hasn't happened yet, senators and members of Congress have introduced several bills over the last few years with the aim of curtailing Section 230.

Meanwhile, Biden demanded much more transparency from major tech companies about the algorithms they use "to stop them from discriminating, keeping opportunities away from equally qualified women and minorities, or pushing content to children that threatens their mental health and safety." Algorithmic bias has been a hot-button issue in some circles for many years. Some, for instance, incorrectly believed that Twitter's algorithms were biased against conservative perspectives. Elected officials have made several attempts to make tech companies accountable for algorithmic bias too.

Senators have also expressed concern that platforms haven't done enough to protect children. A bipartisan bill submitted last February sought to give children more privacy and safety protections on social media while requiring platforms to minimize their exposure to content concerning things like self-harm, eating disorders, sexual exploitation and alcohol.

The third area Biden wants to focus on is bolstering competition in the tech industry. "When tech platforms get big enough, many find ways to promote their own products while excluding or disadvantaging competitors — or charge competitors a fortune to sell on their platform," he wrote. "My vision for our economy is one in which everyone — small and midsized businesses, mom-and-pop shops, entrepreneurs — can compete on a level playing field with the biggest companies."

Biden called for legislators to offer upstart companies a chance to succeed by bringing in fairer rules. "The next generation of great American companies shouldn’t be smothered by the dominant incumbents before they have a chance to get off the ground," he argued.

The president also noted that his "administration has made strong progress in promoting competition throughout the economy, consistent with my July 2021 executive order." At that time, he urged the Federal Communications Commission to undo the previous administration's dismantling of net neutrality and said that mergers would face more scrutiny. However, there's only so much the executive branch can do.

"We need bipartisan action from Congress to hold Big Tech accountable. We’ve heard a lot of talk about creating committees. It’s time to walk the walk and get something done," Biden concluded. "There will be many policy issues we disagree on in the new Congress, but bipartisan proposals to protect our privacy and our children; to prevent discrimination, sexual exploitation and cyberstalking; and to tackle anticompetitive conduct shouldn’t separate us. Let’s unite behind our shared values and show the nation we can work together to get the job done."

Following the 2022 midterm election, Biden is now contending with a split Congress. Democrats managed to hang onto control of the Senate but lost the House to the Republicans. That will make it more difficult for Biden to carry out his agenda. By publishing an op-ed in a major newspaper, he'll be looking to earn support from the public on these issues and put pressure on Republicans to acquiesce.

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