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Tech newsletter: Why the election is so important for the internet’s very future

Here is a look at tech and politics news from the last week.

Jan 27, 2021, 1:10 pm*

Tech

 

Andrew Wyrich

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Hey readers! Welcome to this week’s Tech Tuesday edition of the Internet Insider. The election will have implications on a dizzying array of topics, but one issue that will undoubtedly be impacted is net neutrality. 

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Here’s what we’ve got on deck today:


Joe Biden and Donald Trump faces made from circuit board imagery
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BREAK THE INTERNET

Why the 2020 election is so important for net neutrality

Regardless of whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump wins the 2020 election, there will be far-reaching implications for the net neutrality debate. 

Experts see the future of net neutrality rolling out one of two ways, both of which have several avenues splintering off from each. 

In a Biden administration, it’s widely believed that net neutrality will come back in some form. Whether that is through the FCC or through Congress, the former vice president’s term in office should lead to net neutrality being restored, experts say. 

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On the other hand, Trump’s first term in office led to the repeal of net neutrality, meaning that the threads that have already begun to unspool—like legal battles at the state level—would likely take center stage in the net neutrality debate if he repeats. 

“It’s pretty simple. Under a Trump administration you’re going to have broadband access providers able to do whatever they want without any congressional oversight,” Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and former FCC counselor, told the Daily Dot, adding: “If you’ve got all three [Congress and the presidency], I think there’s no doubt a Biden FCC moves to reclassify, and readopt the 2015 Open Internet rules, and maybe even strengthen them, and Congress works to pass a law. I don’t see why you can’t do both.”

Sohn added: “This election could absolutely determine whether the 18-year ping-pong game is put on pause or ended forever with a victory for consumers once and for all.” 

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Under a Biden administration, Craig Aaron, the co-CEO of Free Press Action, told the Daily Dot to expect that net neutrality becomes “the kind of thing that could show up on a 100-day agenda or a year one agenda for a new administration. And it should.” 

That could show up in a few different ways. One option is simply having the FCC go through the rulemaking process to re-establish net neutrality, presumably under Title II of the Communications Act. This avenue assumes that Biden would select commissioners to be named to the FCC who believe in Title II regulations. The former vice president’s views on net neutrality were hazy at best for the early part of his campaign, but have since appeared to come inline with the rest of the party. 

Another possibility that net neutrality advocates say is preferable than going through the FCC again is having Congress pass a net neutrality law. 

In 2019, the House of Representatives passed the Save the Internet Act, a bill that would essentially have restored the 2015 Open Internet Order as a law. However, the bill languished in the Senate since passing in the House.

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That has partially laid the groundwork for a potential net neutrality law, experts say, which would put to rest the constant back-and-forth of Democrat-led FCC and Republican-led FCC’s repealing and enacting net neutrality rules. 

“I think Congress is so important here, and I think sometimes we don’t think about it,” Aaron said, adding: “If there is a split in Congress, the FCC becomes the center of attention again.”

Meanwhile, a Trump re-election makes the prospects of an FCC-led net neutrality restoration or a bill in Congress extremely unlikely. 

Instead, a Trump re-election will lead to a continuation of the net neutrality battle that has unfolded since the FCC repealed the rules.

A federal court in October of last year largely upheld the FCC’s net neutrality repeal, but vacated a portion of it that blocked states from enacting their own laws. This has led to a state level battle over net neutrality, which will likely continue if Trump is re-elected. 

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The FCC just recently doubled down on the repeal after the court asked it to reexamine certain aspects of the repeal. 

Regardless of the outcome of the election, the net neutrality debate isn’t going away.

While a Biden administration is expected to restore net neutrality—that will face pushback. Meanwhile, a Trump reelection will continue the battle that is already unfolding at a state level.

Either way, the rules will still take center stage in the tech policy debates after the election. 

  • Andrew Wyrich, deputy tech editor
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Senate’s Section 230 hearing devolves into a hodgepodge of social media gripes

The Senate Commerce Committee last week held a hearing that ostensibly was meant to discuss Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, but mostly devolved into conservative lawmakers lamenting a perceived anti-conservative bias among social media sites. 

Section 230 acts as a liability shield for websites. Essentially, it shields websites from being sued over what users of the sites post on it. It’s been called one of the most important laws that created the modern internet. 

Despite this, the law has come under attack from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. A flurry of bills have been introduced in Congress and both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have called for Section 230 to be repealed or revoked

Amid all of this, tech advocates have warned that changes, or outright revoking, Section 230 could have far-reaching consequences

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Those kinds of consequences were mostly ignored during the hearing last week, with Republican lawmakers zeroing in on a perceived bias by social media companies against conservatives. 

The lawmakers spent most of the hearing grilling Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai about that. Dorsey took the brunt of the questions about perceived bias. 

Here’s why it matters: Several Democrats on the committee criticized the Republican leadership for holding the hearing just ahead of next week’s election, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) saying they were trying to “bully and browbeat” the companies to loosen their policies as the election loomed. 

While most of the questions centered around bias or other gripes with Silicon Valley, Section 230 did actually come up briefly. 

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) asked the three tech CEOs about the “otherwise objectionable” portion of the law, specifically if they would be open to “redefining” that part of it. The immunity provided by Section 230 allows platforms to take down and moderate content they deem “otherwise objectionable,” in addition to a number of other things. 

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- A.W.


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*First Published: Nov 4, 2020, 9:04 am