Democratic Senate control could breathe new life into tech policy

US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, speaks during a press conference at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 6, 2021.

Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

With Democrats projected to take back the majority in the Senate, tech bills that have languished in the Republican-controlled chamber during Donald Trump’s presidency could see renewed momentum.

While pandemic relief is likely to take center stage for much of the legislative session, the shift in power could still give Democrats the chance to advance their tech policy agenda.

Groups that have long pushed for tech policy reform are hoping to see their efforts bear fruit in the new Congress.

“Democrats have no excuse,” Evan Greer, director of nonpartisan digital rights group Fight for the Future, said in a statement on Wednesday. “They need to get to work right away protecting people’s basic rights in the digital age. This means quickly confirming a new chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) who will restore net neutrality and ensure everyone has affordable Internet access in the midst of a pandemic.”

Greer added that protecting Section 230, banning facial recognition and passing strong national privacy laws should be among the actions Democrats take with their newfound control.

Here are the key ways Democratic control could impact tech policy in the Senate:

Cabinet nominee confirmation

One of the more immediate ways this could happen is by quickly confirming President-elect Joe Biden’s nominations to important cabinet positions like Attorney General and the Secretary of Labor, as well as new appointments to the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission.

The Biden administration will be tasked with handling the federal lawsuits against Facebook and Google filed by the Trump administration. It will also likely continue ongoing research into other tech industry players through work at the Justice Department and FTC.

The Labor Department will face questions about how gig workers should be classified under federal law, which will affect companies like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart. And the FCC will be charged with taking a stance on net neutrality and regulating programs that provide broadband access, which has become even more important during remote work and distance learning due to the pandemic.

Net Neutrality

Antitrust reform

Digital political advertising

Digital privacy

Lawmakers have made significant progress in crafting digital privacy legislation but those bills have remained locked up by disagreements over how those bills should be enforced.

Both Democrats and Republicans want strong protections for consumers’ digital privacy rights on the national level. But Democrats think states should be able to build on those protections, while Republicans have advocated for the national standard to preempt state law to provide consistency for businesses. Democrats also want consumers to be able to sue companies they believe violated their rights, but Republicans fear that would lead to frivolous lawsuits.

Both sides believe the issue is fairly urgent to protect consumers. Without an election immediately on the horizon, there’s a chance lawmakers will be more willing to come to an agreement.

Facial recognition and surveillance

Concerns over facial recognition technology came to the forefront this summer in the wake of concerns over whether and how it might be used to observe the protests for police reform. Democrats in both chambers of Congress backed a push for a moratorium on facial recognition technology for use by law enforcement.

The technology has a spotty track record and has been shown to disproportionately misidentify people of color. In June, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all voluntarily said they would abstain from selling the technology to varying degrees. But lasting rules would have to come from Congress.

Section 230

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