On September 8, the White House hosted a session on Tech Platform Accountability to allow senior administration officials to hear directly about the harms caused by online services. Following the convening, the administration released six principles to guide its technology policy work. Dubbed the “Principles for Enhancing Competition and Tech Platform Accountability,” they represent six areas where experts and activists have long been highlighting harms and demanding action, including promoting competition in the technology sector; providing robust federal protections for Americans’ privacy; stronger privacy and online protections for kids; removing legal protections for large tech platforms; increasing transparency about platforms’ algorithms and content moderation decisions; and stopping discriminatory algorithmic decision-making. The next week, at the White House United We Stand summit against hate-fueled violence, President Joe Biden echoed two of these principles, saying, “I’m calling on Congress to get rid of special immunity for social media companies and impose much stronger transparency requirements on all of them.”
Most of these principles represent a now well-established consensus on key issues of tech platform accountability. The principles likewise reflect bills passed out of various committees—but not yet passed into law—by the 117th Congress, including tech antitrust, online privacy, and children’s privacy and safety. They are a welcome final piece in the technology agenda that the Biden administration has been assembling over the last two years—one that recognizes technology policy not as a singular issue but one that spans multiple domestic and foreign priorities, portfolios, and agencies.
Many of these principles reflect the vision for effective technology regulation that CAP laid out in our extensive 2021 report “How To Regulate Tech: A Technology Policy Framework for Online Services.” Grounding recommendations in a comprehensive survey of harms from online services, the report outlined the multiple efforts needed, such as new competition policies and antitrust enforcement; privacy regulations; transparency; algorithmic discrimination; and addressing the evolution of intermediary liability.
Thus far, the Biden administration’s technology policy has focused on critical technology fundamentals: connectivity, cybersecurity, civil rights, and competition policy at home and abroad. The result has been significant progress, including:
The principles announced this month represent a missing piece of a robust first-term technology policy agenda—one that looks to the future to grapple with the immense challenges to preserving competition, strengthening consumer protection, and addressing the unique threats and harms from technology platforms. The September session at the White House shows that the issue of tech platform accountability is gathering attention at the highest levels of the Biden White House—including some of the White House’s most senior economic, domestic policy, science and technology, and national security leaders—and that focus is now articulated in these new principles. CAP hopes that this session is only the beginning for enhanced White House efforts to drive progress on their articulated tech platform principles.
There is still time for the White House to work with the 117th Congress to advance into law some of their key principles for enhancing competition and tech platform accountability. There is pending bipartisan tech antitrust legislation that has cleared the Judiciary Committees in the House and Senate; a bipartisan privacy bill that passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; and a bipartisan children’s privacy and safety bill that has passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee. While roadblocks remain for all of these bills, clear leadership from the White House could be instrumental in unsticking some of them in time for them to pass into law by the end of the year.
There are a few things in the rest of 2022 that the White House should prioritize in technology policy to make these goals a success, including:
Additionally, the president and White House should address the growing domestic threat to our elections from those peddling lies both offline and online, perhaps the same way that they recently renewed the 2018 executive order continuing “the National Emergency With Respect to Foreign Interference In or Undermining Public Confidence in United States Elections.”
Looking beyond the 117th Congress, issues touched on in the principles may continue to find bipartisan support in a future Congress. In early September, Axios reported that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) unveiled a “Commitment to America” platform that includes a tech focus around privacy and data security; targeting anticompetitive behavior; and keeping kids safe online. These commitments overlap with several of the administration’s principles on privacy, competition, and child safety. They, likewise, reflect the bipartisan votes registered on these issues thus far. While the make-up of the 118th Congress is unknown at this point, these overlaps suggest that these Tech Platform Accountability principles could make progress next year regardless of which party is in control of Congress.
Certain to garner the most attention is the White House’s fourth principle to “[r]emove special legal protections for large tech platforms,” which references Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 has been a technology policy lightening rod over the last few years, with both presidential candidates in 2020 supporting its reform or elimination. As the White House notes, “the President has long called for fundamental reforms to Section 230.” Former President Donald Trump tried to eliminate Section 230 with executive power he did not possess. Despite the bipartisan interest, this principle is perhaps most divisive among experts in technology and civil rights—many of whom argue that the changes proposed worsen the problems at hand. This is because the likely reactions from large platforms if Section 230 were to be eliminated would be to restrict user speech, potentially doing as much or more harm to freedom of expression as it might protect. Yet, the bipartisan interest here is striking, as even the White House’s framing noted above echoed the reported House Republican pledge: “Scrap Section 230 for the largest tech companies.”
Finally, while the administration has laid out strong principles on tech platform accountability, these are inherently issues that touch on authorities and equities across the White House and a number of federal agencies. It would be helpful for the president to articulate who should be responsible for driving these principles to further execution.
As noted in CAP’s 2021 report, competition, privacy, and transparency are key items needed to lay the groundwork for a stronger and even more robust future technology policy that can tackle the issues of algorithmic amplification; the challenges of online infrastructure; the need for ex ante rule-making; and increased technology expertise. These principles and the other accomplishments have set the stage for a strong bipartisan technology agenda for President Biden’s first term.