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Can Biden build the internet back better?

One year ago, during a raging pandemic in a deeply polarized country, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris became President and Vice President of the United States. They were inaugurated only a few weeks after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was facilitated in part by the failure of social media platforms to deal effectively with calls for violent insurrection. 

Since then, a lot has happened. We’ve been tracking key digital rights developments in our 2021 U.S. tech policy tracker, which we are now sunsetting. The upshot: While digital rights activists and whistleblowers like Frances Haugen turned a global spotlight on the need to rein in  Big Tech and better protect our rights, overall the Biden-Harris administration fell short of its promise in the first year.

This blog walks you through the victories worth celebrating, and what more the administration needs to accomplish before 2024. We’re hopeful that more digital rights wins are headed our way, especially on issues that have global impact. We all deserve better.

Data protection

We still don’t have a federal data protection law on the books, but we saw some promising movement in preparation for what we hope will be a year of action. A few  things that inspire optimism: the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) bureau focused on privacy and data abuses, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration launched listening sessions on privacy and civil rights concerns, signaling the administration takes the issue seriously. We’re also hopeful that the FTC will pass a privacy and civil rights rulemaking to help safeguard our data online, though the initiative could be hampered by the lack of a leading majority at the agency. We are also excited to see the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s draft rulemaking that would toughen data breach notification requirements for telecommunication companies.

Net neutrality

Biden failed to nominate commissioners for the FCC until very late in 2021, making it difficult to reinstate net neutrality. However, now that Jessica Rosenworcel has been confirmed to chair the agency, and net neutrality champion Gigi Sohn’s is awaiting confirmation as FCC Commissioner, we expect to see more progress soon.

Connectivity

We made huge progress on connectivity in the U.S. — most notably, when Biden signed into law a bill that includes $65 billion for broadband infrastructure and internet affordability projects, including the Emergency Broadband Benefit program (now called the Affordable Connectivity Plan). Biden’s Build Back Better Act includes even more funding for broadband, which Congress should act on.  

Section 230

The good news: Congress resisted pressure to take hasty action to repeal or reform Section 230 in ways that undermine free expression or make it more difficult for platforms to remove harmful speech. Further, some members of Congress worked on process-oriented amendments to Section 230 (which do not present as many freedom of expression concerns) in the PACT Act. The not-so-good news: Congress has failed to address online civil rights harms, and we hope to see rights-respecting solutions to combat discrimination.

Disinformation

Combating disinformation had its ups and downs. One major win was that the U.S. Surgeon General published an advisory declaring COVID misinformation a “serious threat” and calling on every sector of society to limit its spread. That said, more needs to be done to combat Spanish-language disinformation, especially in the lead up to the November 2022 midterm elections. With the launch of the Disinfo Defense League policy platform, of which we are a signatory, we are hopeful meaningful change is afoot.

Facial recognition

While the administration didn’t make major strides on this issue, its Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is looking at how biometric technologies are being used across the government and private sector. The agency has announced a plan to develop an AI “bill of rights” to protect people from the potentially harmful consequences of AI technologies such as facial recognition. The private sector is also responding to civil society pressure: Amazon extended its moratorium on police use of its facial recognition technology. We continue to call for a  ban on biometric surveillance that enables mass surveillance and discriminatory targeted surveillance. One reason we’re hopeful is that members of Congress have introduced the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act, an attempt to move the needle in the right direction.

Foreign policy 

It was an exciting year for digital rights in the context of U.S. foreign policy, and a big step up from previous years. Responding to the unprecedented scrutiny of the spyware industry, the U.S. added NSO Group and other surveillance tech firms to the blocked “Entity List” and drafted new export control rules. The U.S. also helped rally international condemnation of internet shutdowns, launching a State Department Task Force on Internet Shutdowns, and supporting strong statements opposing network disruptions at the G7 Summit. In the future we want to see even more aggressive action to halt the rampant abuse of surveillance and censorship technologies. Particularly promising is  the Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative launched at the U.S. Summit for Democracy.

Where do we go from here?

Despite frustration with the lack of progress on some issues, we made a lot of headway on digital rights this year, and there are good reasons to hope for more. 

If you’d like to help push for change on a central issue for digital rights — data privacy — we encourage you to sign our petition urging the FTC to initiate a privacy and civil rights rulemaking to protect our data online. If we can put an end to the privacy-invasive business models that enable harmful targeting and political manipulation, we will all be much better off.

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