Six months in, Biden must speed progress on digital rights

Six months ago, as the pandemic raged, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris became President and Vice President of the United States. On inauguration day, we launched the U.S. Digital Rights in the Biden Era tracker to hold the administration and Congress accountable for defending human rights on tech policy topics ranging from data protection to disinformation to foreign policy.

Here are some important updates on how the Administration has done its first six months in office across seven core issues:

➔ Pass a federal data protection law

While no federal data protection law has passed, some progress has been made. Most notably, President Biden signed an executive order that includes calling on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to exercise their rulemaking authority on “unfair data collection and surveillance practices that may damage competition, consumer autonomy, and consumer privacy.” Unfortunately, the executive order makes no mention of discriminatory data practices or violations of civil rights, so we will continue to push for the inclusion of these issues in any FTC rulemaking.

➔ Reinstate net neutrality

There has been no movement on net neutrality, particularly because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) remains deadlocked at 2-2. It is still, however, on the administration’s mind given its recent executive order that calls on the FCC to restore net neutrality.

➔ Close the digital divide and ensure connectivity

The FCC implemented the Emergency Broadband Benefit (to help people with low-incomes afford broadband) and the Emergency Connectivity Fund (to help schools and libraries build connectivity). Relatedly, we helped launch the Let’s Broadband Together campaign with Consumer Reports, which will look into how much broadband costs, a metric we have long asked the FCC to collect, to no avail.

➔ Update Section 230

No updates to Section 230 have passed Congress, but in a critical victory for the defense of free expression, Biden repealed Trump’s executive order that asked federal agencies to retaliate against social media companies by changing Section 230. This decision helps ensure the Section 230 debate is left to Congress, where it belongs.

➔ Address and combat disinformation

The U.S. Surgeon General published a Confronting Health Misinformation advisory that declares health misinformation a “serious threat” and calls on every sector of society to help limit its spread. To improve interagency coordination on this threat and other disinformation harms, we joined PEN America in calling on the White House to create a designated task force to combat disinformation, but have yet to see the administration act.

➔ Regulate facial recognition technology

Fortunately, we’ve seen some movement from the administration and Congress on facial recognition and biometric surveillance more broadly. The administration rescinded a Department of Homeland Security proposed rule to expand biometric collection of immigrants applying for benefits. And U.S. Senator Ed Markey introduced the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act, a bill that would end federal use of facial recognition tools and terminate federal funding for state and local law enforcement use of biometric tech.

➔ Place human rights at the center of foreign policy

The new administration’s foreign policy on digital rights is moving in the right direction. We were invited to brief U.S. State Department officials on the #KeepItOn campaign to combat internet shutdowns globally, and U.S. Secretary of State Blinken forcefully condemned internet shutdowns. And, we were excited to see that the State Department plans to update the United States’ National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct to better hold corporations accountable to the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Remember: Personnel is policy

The biggest barrier to the administration making more progress on tech policy is lack of political appointees. In addition to the FCC vacancy mentioned above, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (the president’s technology policy agency) lacks a full-time director, and the lead antitrust position at the Department of Justice is still open. The FTC has been at full capacity for only one month of Biden’s tenure, and, despite Lina Khan’s recent confirmation as Chair, the FTC will again be missing a commissioner when Rohit Chopra moves to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. As long as these positions remain unfilled, President Biden will continue to lose precious time to move the needle on digital rights.

All to say, Biden’s first six months have been a mixed bag on tech policy and human rights. He clearly has a desire to push the envelope, given his recent executive order, but he’s hobbled his own administration by dragging his feet on nominations. It’s time to get moving on all these issues.

We’ll continue to track progress here as we keep the pressure on. Be on the lookout for updates from us.