Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Should Big Tech lose sleep over who wins this election?

Consumer technology platforms have become the primary battlefield in the lead-up to most elections in the world. Social media campaigns and digital advertising played a major role in propelling Donald Trump to the Oval office in 2016. It might have happened again. Yet, Trump himself, like other politicians elsewhere, has also displayed a desire to neuter the very platforms that helped bring him to power. So, as much of the globe stays glued to screens, watching the finish line of the US presidential election, we should take a moment to analyse how partisan politics might affect the world of technology.

US election heat on the tech industry started with the Democratic primaries. Elizabeth Warren, in her campaign, pledged a lot more than just antitrust action on Facebook, Google and Amazon. She swore to break them up into smaller companies. Bernie Sanders joined the chorus, making tech a hot topic in the Democratic debates. Primary campaigns often bring out extreme and unimplementable plans, but the attack on tech giants turned out to be far from just malarkey. Big Tech is truly in the cross-hairs of both the Democratic and Republican establishments. The first salvos at Google and Apple have already been fired by the US department of justice and Supreme Court. The next White House, Senate and House of Representatives are unlikely to step off the pedal. Industry insiders say Facebook and Amazon are likely to face trouble too.

Facebook was thrown into the midst of a massive election-interference controversy during the last elections, resulting in the President taking direct aim at social media. Since then, the White House has had a love-hate relationship with social media—love the platforms, but be wary of the companies that own them. So naturally, as the next election approached, political ads, election security and social media became hot topics. Trump and his inner circle have repeatedly had their posts struck off for spreading misinformation on matters ranging from covid to unproven voter fraud. Trump and his Republican colleagues have accused social media companies of political bias. Democrats, on the other hand, have complained of Facebook not fact-checking political ads. While Twitter and Google made some moves to either ban political ads altogether or ones that make false claims, Facebook only made some nuanced efforts. Both political sides appear to bear grudges on this topic, and after these polls, an ongoing debate on Section 230—a law that gives website publishers immunity from charges filed over third-party content—is sure to gain centre stage. Any changes to this law could have a serious impact on the way social media curates what people post on their platforms. That said, making changes to this law will not be easy, no matter who is in power, and could easily be a long drawn arduous affair, to say the least.

In the last four years, the relationship between the leaders of China and the US seesawed between cordial and contentious, over trade, intellectual property, security, covid and technology companies. China’s electronics giant Huawei—a leader in 5G technology—had already been on the US ban list since 2012, but also got added to a security entity list. Moreover, the US very effectively lobbied its allies around the world to extend similar bans on Huawei. Trump administration officials even outlined recommendations that could be used to ban or delist China-based companies from US bourses, unless regulators were given unfettered access to their audit reports. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has had a poor record of bringing to fruition policies announced with much pomp and pageantry. An assault on TikTok ended rather unceremoniously with a tame outcome. A proposed ban on WeChat is still doing the rounds of US courts. Unlike India’s total ban on all major Chinese digital services, US attempts did not really work out that well. A Trump win would surely up tensions by a couple of notches, but in either case, legislators will have no reason to do anything that makes it harder for US companies to compete on equal terms.

One of the many areas in which the two US candidates differed widely was green tech and infrastructure. On their respective campaign trails, both presidential candidates made extensive promises to invest in infrastructure. In 2018, Trump spoke of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure spending plan, and earlier this year, a $2 trillion one. No concrete plan has ever been presented and neither plan went anywhere. His Democratic challenger, however, has been articulate and has repeatedly emphasized big spending on green energy and green tech. Joe Biden has been very clear about efforts to create millions of jobs in green energy, and has spoken of plans to fund a nationwide electric vehicle charging network. But this plan was hardly enough, especially since in the last four years, China has grown by leaps and bounds in pursuit of a clean and green future.

Whether Trump believes in climate change or not, the next administration will need to take a call on the US establishing a lead in green and clean tech. It needs to show the way. So far, the US has seen just a private enterprise-led push towards consumer adoption of such technologies of the future. Some effort to tilt the scales with government money being spent on key technology research, electricity storage, clean power, clean mobility, smart power grids and bigger incentives for green infrastructure companies would be welcome.

Jyotirmoy Saha is founder and chief executive officer of August Media

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Updated: 04 Nov 2020, 09:28 PM IST
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