By John D. McKinnon and Ryan Tracy
WASHINGTON -- Powerful technology companies are expected to face increased scrutiny no matter who wins the Nov. 3 election, but President Trump and challenger Joe Biden differ on some of the problems posed by Big Tech and how to solve them.
In a second term, Mr. Trump and his appointees likely would maintain -- and possibly accelerate -- the broad-scale regulatory scrutiny of technology companies that marked his first term. That effort has included allegations of anticonservative bias online, antitrust investigations of internet giants such as Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Facebook Inc., and actions against Chinese-owned apps such as TikTok and WeChat.
Mr. Biden, the Democratic nominee, has also been critical of Big Tech's market power. He and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) say they would support stricter antitrust oversight and online privacy rules. But the Biden camp has emphasized forcing social-media companies to better police their sites against false information, and taking government action to help workers under threat from innovations such as self-driving cars.
With Congress also focused on Big Tech, both candidates are likely to take a hand in legislative efforts to increase competition in digital markets, expand broadband access and protect consumers' privacy.
"The hands-off approach is gone, regardless of who wins the election," said Gene Kimmelman, a former Obama administration antitrust official who recently co-wrote a paper calling for a new agency to regulate large digital platforms.
The Obama administration -- in which Mr. Biden served as vice president -- developed a tech-friendly reputation, hiring Silicon Valley veterans for key posts and declining to pursue antitrust complaints against Google and others. Some conservative and progressive tech critics alike worry that a Biden administration would take up that stance again, settling any antitrust cases brought by the Trump administration on lenient terms.
Biden campaign spokesman Matt Hill declined to comment on the prospect for settling antitrust cases, but suggested Mr. Biden would be tough.
"Joe Biden has long said one of the greatest sins is the abuse of power, " Mr. Hill said. "Many technology giants and their executives have not only abused their power, but misled the American people, damaged our democracy, and evaded any form of responsibility. That ends with a President Biden."
The Trump campaign says leniency ended with the incumbent's 2016 election. The Justice Department in the Trump administration has been investigating Google for potential anticompetitive conduct in its search and advertising business, and is expected to file a case before the election that likely would carry over into 2021 and beyond. The Federal Trade Commission is also investigating tech companies for potential antitrust violations, including preparing a possible lawsuit against Facebook.
During the Democratic primary, Mr. Biden didn't join progressives calling to break up Big Tech firms, saying it would be premature to do so before a formal investigation. This summer, a policy task force Mr. Biden created with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, his final Democratic primary opponent, recommended breaking up companies for anticompetitive behavior "as a last resort."
Nevertheless, Mr. Biden has said that antitrust enforcement hasn't been strong enough and that tech firms deserve a hard look from the federal agencies that oversee competition.
Mr. Trump hasn't called for tech breakups either, though that is one possible outcome of the continuing antitrust investigations.
Tech's liability shield
A particular focus for a second Trump term would be legislation to scale back protections social-media companies enjoy under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which gives them broad legal immunity for posted content and their efforts to moderate it. Mr. Trump says the law has been used to censor conservative viewpoints.
Mr. Trump called for repeal of Section 230 in a Sept. 8 tweet, echoing a position Mr. Biden took earlier this year with a very different motivation. Even so, the law is considered foundational to the internet and has bipartisan support.
Mr. Trump ordered regulatory agencies this year to consider tougher oversight of online companies under Section 230 when they don't moderate users' speech fairly or fail to live up to their promises relating to free speech.
"It's become evident that Big Tech believes they are the arbiters of truth online -- but they have a clear blind spot when it comes to their bias against conservative voices," said Samantha Zager, a Trump campaign spokeswoman. "President Trump will continue to advocate for an internet that embraces free speech over censorship."
As a sign of the issue's importance to the White House, Mr. Trump recently withdrew the renomination of a Republican commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission after he expressed concern about the legal basis for Mr. Trump's tougher line on Section 230. The White House has also pressured the Republican chairman of the FTC, Joseph Simons, to take more action to support the effort, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Biden surprised the tech world when he called for revoking Section 230. But unlike conservatives, Mr. Biden says some social-media platforms do too little policing, not too much.
His campaign website devoted an entire page to criticizing Facebook and its relatively hands-off policy when it comes to policing political speech. Some critics say that policy benefits Mr. Trump. Mr. Biden has termed the company irresponsible.
Mr. Biden hasn't outlined what new policy might replace Section 230, but he appears to want social-media companies to be more active, not less, in taking down content -- especially what the Biden campaign views as false information promoted by pro-Trump groups. Facebook says it is important to allow voters to see the statements of political candidates.
Mr. Trump and other Republicans have their own frustrations with Facebook, which has removed some Trump campaign ads and some of the president's statements about the coronavirus.
But they have also at times praised the company's decisions, such as when it declined to join rivals such as Twitter Inc. in labeling and shielding from public view a post from Mr. Trump about violent protests.
Mr. Biden has expressed concerns about the potential impacts of many tech innovations, such as self-driving vehicles, on people with middle-class jobs. "Whether your predictions are true about automation and self-driving trucks, these folks aren't stupid," he said in a speech in 2018 at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They listen, they understand and they're scared to death." Among Mr. Biden's proposed solutions are such ideas as providing extra government aid to help workers who have been dislocated by tech.
The former vice president has also been outspoken about using government regulation to force "gig economy" businesses to pay benefits to their independent contractors, by reclassifying them as employees.
California adopted such a law last year and debate continues about its efficacy. Ride-hailing companies have said their drivers aren't covered, while state legislators modified the law in response to job losses in other industries.
In a New York Times interview early this year, Mr. Biden described meeting as vice president with tech leaders -- "little creeps," he called them -- touting their industry's economic benefit.
"'You have fewer people on your payroll than all the losses that General Motors just faced in the last quarter, of employees. So don't lecture me about how you've created all this employment,'" Mr. Biden said he responded.
The Trump campaign said policies like California's gig-worker law "take away workers' opportunity to make their own schedules and participate in a free and open gig economy."
The Labor Department, which is led by a Trump appointee, last year said people offering services on online sites or apps should be considered employees of the consumer who hires them, not the virtual marketplace. That policy could make it harder for gig workers to win labor disputes.
The Trump administration has also sought to expand the availability of worker training through apprenticeships, in part by making it easier for businesses to run their own apprentice programs.
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