As the election dust settles, it seems safe to assume that Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States. And while control of the Senate likely won’t be decided until the outcome of two runoffs elections in early January, odds are that the Republicans maintain their majority, leaving us with a divided Congress.
For Silicon Valley, that’s both good news and bad. It’s good because a fully Democratic Congress would have seriously debated, and maybe passed, a slew of measures designed to rein in the technology industry, ranging from antitrust to privacy to worker classification. Now, the tech giants can probably avoid that bloodbath. But it’s also bad because many big ideas in tech can’t move forward without a regulatory framework, and the odds of the next Congress agreeing on anything significant are exceptionally low. That means that tech’s D.C. agenda should focus heavily on what can both be done—and stopped—within the Biden administration.
The removal of Donald Trump from the White House offers two key benefits to the entire tech industry: eliminating much of the volatility, uncertainty, and chaos that defined Washington and gripped the entire nation throughout Trump’s tenure; and reversing Trump’s staunch stance against immigration. The new administration will also have influence over other major areas of interest, like antitrust legislation and regulation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which currently immunizes websites from being sued for anything their users say. But while all eyes will be on the Biden administration’s approach to reining in Big Tech, there are a host of more subtle ways that Biden can influence the tech industry in the years to come.
While the White House downplayed the threat posed by COVID-19, in March, Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services actually proposed a series of emergency waivers to make it easier for Medicare and Medicaid to reimburse for telehealth and for doctors in one state to treat patients in another. These measures helped keep front line workers safe and saved lives. If we want more people to receive care at lower prices to the taxpayer, Congress needs to make these changes permanent. The Biden administration may not have any objections to this, but odds are, it’s also not high on their priority list. Advocating for telehealth’s continued rise will be necessary, especially as the pandemic gets worse.
Autonomous tech regulation
The next item on the list would require a Biden administration to take action where team Trump either couldn’t or wouldn’t. The technology for autonomous cars, trucks, and drones all exist. But no one in the federal government has defined how safe this tech must be to switch to full autonomy, which means that the industry is currently trying to move forward without any kind of defined regulatory framework. That makes deployment practically impossible. Convincing Biden’s Department of Transportation to take up the issue, make decisions, and formulate clear rules will be essential.
The Trump Department of Labor is on the cusp of approving rules that would address how businesses determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The proposed standard would make it easier for sharing economy workers to remain independent contractors, a major win for many big tech companies. The recent successful campaign by Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash in California to block the reclassification of its workers shows that this concept is palatable to many Democratic voters, too. But the Democrats in elected office, including Biden, have supported efforts by organized labor to reclassify sharing economy workers as full-time employees (it’s the biggest organizing opportunity in decades for private sector unions). Withdrawing the proposed rule is likely the first item on their Department of Labor agenda. The tech industry needs to take the California approach to Washington if there’s any hope at all of preserving some version of the Trump-era standard.
Over at the Securities and Exchange Commission, tech is going to need to lobby hard for new regulations that promote multiple digital currencies rather than the current legal ambiguity that will likely lead to one dominant player, which arguably undermines the entire point of crypto. The more digital communities, the better, and while the SEC certainly could adopt this perspective, it won’t happen by accident.
Obviously, tech isn’t a monolith—what’s good for one company may not be good for another, and expecting the entire sector to agree on a single agenda, and then lobby effectively for it, is unrealistic. But assuming we have a Biden White House and a split Congress, tech companies will need to win their case with key administration stakeholders if they want to see progress on any of their key issues. Given the number of priorities and issues competing for attention, it won’t be easy, but the future of autonomous vehicles, drones, cryptocurrency, the sharing economy, and telehealth may all depend on it.
Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist and political strategist. His fund, Tusk Ventures, has investments in companies in some of the industries referenced in this piece, including Coinbase, Kodiak, Ro, Alma, GetLabs, Wheel and Circle.