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President Biden’s Tech To-do List

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays. President Biden is inheriting tricky tech …

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.

President Biden is inheriting tricky tech questions including how to rein in powerful digital superstars, what to do about Chinese technology and how to bring more Americans online.

Here’s a glimpse at opportunities and challenges in technology policy for the new Biden administration:

Restraining tech powers: Under the Trump administration, there were investigations, lawsuits and noisy squabbles over the power of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and other tech companies. Tech giants can expect more of the same under Mr. Biden and a Congress narrowly controlled by Democrats.

Government lawsuits that accused Google and Facebook of breaking the law to become successful or stay that way will be handed off to the new administration, which is expected to continue them. More lawsuits could come, too, possibly making it harder for Big Tech to continue as is.

On Tuesday, a top Justice Department lawyer appointed by former President Donald Trump agreed with many of the prescriptions from congressional Democrats who said America’s top four tech superpowers are harmful monopolies. The speech showed that hating Big Tech is one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement.

Online speech: This was a central internet dispute long before Facebook and Twitter locked Mr. Trump’s accounts after he incited a mob. The question of what, if anything, the government should do about online expression is just getting trickier.

This policy fight has fixated on a bedrock 1996 internet law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives websites some legal protection for what their users do. It means Yelp can let people leave reviews and screen them for fraud or nastiness, without being legally accountable to unhappy restaurant owners. And yet, the lawalso protects websites where people post sexually explicit photos of their exes without permission.

Democrats and Republicans both have misgivings about Section 230, but not for the same reasons. Those on the right have said that the law gives internet companies too much leeway to intervene in what people say online. Democrats, including Mr. Biden, have said that internet companies have too much cover not to intervene in harmful posts.

The uneasiness with Section 230 increases the likelihood of at least some modifications. Those might include rescinding the legal protections for sites that host misinformation about voting or forcing companies to be clear about how their posts are moderated.

Tech and China: The Trump administration’s fumbling over Chinese apps including TikTok was a missed opportunity to address an important question: What should the U.S. government do about globally important technology from countries that don’t share America’s values?

Mr. Biden seems to agree with the Trump administration’s concerns about the ambitions of China in tech and other areas, but he hasn’t said much beyond aiming for a more consistent and coherent policy. Mr. Biden has also expressed support for more government investment in essential U.S. technology to counter China’s tech ambitions.

Digital divide: The pandemic highlighted a persistent gap between Americans who can get access to and afford internet service and the millions who can’t, particularly in low-income or rural households.

Mr. Biden’s priorities mention “universal broadband,” but he hasn’t specified how to get there. The Washington Post reported that Mr. Biden’s advisers want to enhance E-Rate, a program to help schools and libraries provide internet access.

What else? Mr. Biden’s economic revival plan includes suggestions to “launch the most ambitious effort ever” to modernize U.S. cyberdefenses. Maybe this is the year for a federal data privacy law? And there are rifts among Democrats on special employment treatment for “gig” workers.

The most urgent priorities for the new administration are to end the pandemic and help Americans recover from the damage. But how the U.S. government handles these complex tech questions will also have a big effect on Americans and others around the world.

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Before we go …

  • The perennial quest to limit the internet’s downsides: Discord, the chat app that’s popular with video game players, made a bunch of changes to police the site for child predators, bullying and other risks. The Wall Street Journal reviewed Discord’s efforts and talked to people who also want parental controls for the app.

  • China’s most prominent tech executive resurfaces: Jack Ma, who is behind two of China’s biggest technology companies, reappeared in public at an education event, my colleague Tiffany May reported. Ma hadn’t been seen since late last year when the authorities cracked down on his business empire after he criticized government regulation.

  • No Peloton allowed in the Situation Room: Mr. Biden loves his Peloton exercise bike, but it probably needs modifications — ditch that camera and microphone! — to prevent hackers from possibly snooping on national secrets.

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