The 2020 presidential election is technological warfare. President Trump and Joe Biden are spending millions to deploy algorithms and target potential voters with their messages. The campaigns are more dependent on databases, math models, and video calls than ever, in part due to the pandemic. One thing mostly missing from this electoral techno-clash: substantive discussion of technology policy.
Thursday night’s debate seems unlikely to veer into detailed tech talk, although the Department of Justice’s antitrust case against Google has a good shot at a mention. Don’t expect to hear much about broadband or research spending or immigration policy for high-skilled workers.
That’s a shame, because technology shapes every facet of American life, and the pandemic makes tech issues even more pressing. It also may create an opportunity to reset US tech policy, if a vaccine quells the coronavirus and Congress passes a post-viral stimulus.
One deep-rooted problem deserving more national attention is the tragic state of US internet access. Many people in rural and poor urban areas are locked out of jobs, schools, and social opportunities by the high price of broadband, says Joshua Stager, a senior policy counsel at New America's Open Technology Institute. The problem is much worse now that many schools, workplaces, and doctors have gone virtual.
Trump has recently taken an interest in the Federal Communications Commission, but only to push a nonsensical attempt to repurpose the laws regulating online platforms into a political weapon. Over the past four years, his administration has cut back the Lifeline program that offers subsidized broadband for people with low incomes, and weakened the FCC’s power to regulate internet service providers. The Democratic platform includes reinstating the agency’s teeth so as to pressure ISPs on pricing and expanding access.
Even if Trump wins, Stager is hopeful Congress will act on broadband. He says the issue is more important to voters than the presidential campaign suggests. Some congressional candidates are campaigning on the issue, particularly in rural areas. In a Virginia debate last month, Senator Mark Warner and Republican challenger Daniel Gade both endorsed federal action to improve rural broadband. Warner compared the project to electrification in the 1930s; Gade likened it to building the interstate highway system. “It seems to be one of the few issues that unites both Republican and Democratic voters,” Stager says. “Everyone hates their cable company.”
Biden and Trump’s recent speeches on midwestern stumps suggest they believe many US voters are also united in a love of factory work. Neither candidate has really acknowledged the technological and economic trends that have shrunk US manufacturing—or that future factories will require fewer people, says Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The framing focuses on the nostalgic view of Rust Belt states in their heyday,” Muro says. “The discussion the country has to have is what skills are needed in the 21st century when enterprises are using more software and automation and artificial intelligence.”
Brookings research has found that the many US workers without entry-level digital skills, such as familiarity with spreadsheets, are increasingly shut out of the labor market. Government data shows that computers are more central to many jobs that were once fully analog, such as fixing trucks. Muro says it’s time to talk about big investments in retraining, particularly in places far from the coastal cities that have reaped the benefits of a more digital economy.
Whoever wins on November 3, the early years of his term will be dominated by taming and recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. That could mean economic stimulus packages like those seen after the Great Recession, and a shot at big shifts in US tech policy, particularly if the Democrats gain control of both White House and Senate.
Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, says one priority should be to reverse the slump in government support for the research needed to keep America great at inventing new technologies. The Trump White House has boosted funding for research and development on quantum technology and artificial intelligence. But it’s done so at the expense of funding in other areas.
Much of the US economy, particularly the tech industry, is built on the fruits of Cold War-era R&D, including the internet, Atkinson says. But US government R&D spending as a percentage of GDP has declined for decades. Including private investments, America now ranks ninth in the world for R&D spending as a percentage of GDP, according to UN data, behind countries including South Korea and Germany. America still spends more than any other nation, but China is catching up fast. “At some point we can’t just keep eating the seed corn,” Atkinson says. “We need to make a big national push to get back into the game.”
America’s historical preeminence in tech and R&D was built in part on welcoming non-American innovators. Trump has undermined that—and annoyed tech companies—by restricting skilled visa programs. Biden has said he will increase the supply of work visas to people with science and technology skills, and automatically offer green cards to foreign PhD grads. But he promises that skilled visas won’t be allowed to undermine wages, suggesting tech industry recruiters wouldn’t be free to hire at will.
The growing economic competition between the US and China also hasn’t gotten much level-headed discussion in 2020, in large part thanks to Trump. He’s talked big, but acted narrowly, imposing limits on Chinese apps including TikTok, which was forced into a messy deal with Oracle. His administration also has restricted and canceled student visas for Chinese nationals, a significant demographic in US grad schools, saying they pose a security threat.
The tech industry doesn’t want to unplug from China’s tech sector—too many crucial components can’t be sourced elsewhere. But Republicans and Democrats both say they want to forcibly reduce that dependence. The need to toughen up on China was one of the few points of agreement in the candidates’ chaotic first debate, although few details surfaced. Biden has said he’ll aim to repatriate crucial tech supply chains, such as in semiconductors; if elected he’s expected to be more consistent but overall less tough on China than Trump has been.
Atkinson sees signs that the next four years may yield more substantive action on the US-China tech contest, whoever is in the White House. In July, the Senate voted 96-4 to steer $25 billion of the Pentagon’s budget to support US research and manufacturing of new chip technology. Last year, a bipartisan group of nine senators introduced a bill that would establish a new government office of Critical Technologies to maintain US leadership and independence in tech. Whatever comes up in Thursday night’s face off, technology policy will be hard to avoid during the next four years.