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Country Reports

What's next for the United States?

by Dirk Hegen

Part 5: Innovation and Digitalization Policy

How is the Biden Administration changing the direction of the United States? The KAS Office USA takes a first look, in a series of five country reports. This report highlights the 46th President’s specific positions, policy proposals, executive orders and key appointments in the executive branch with respect to innovation, science and digital policy.

Key Policy Goals

While President Biden’s immediate attention and policy agenda is largely focused on all aspects surrounding the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis, his statements and policy program leading up to the U.S. general elections in November 2020, as well as some early executive actions and appointments, nevertheless indicate a substantial focus on innovation and information technology policies. This includes sizeable research and development investment programs (including in artificial intelligence), possible regulation of Silicon Valley and the internet, privacy and intellectual property rights, as well as recalibration of U.S. policy based on science.

Innovate America: In his program for his 2020 presidential run  Biden laid out a $300 billion investment plan in Research and Development (R&D) ranging from electric vehicle technology to lightweight materials, semiconductors to 5G and artificial intelligence, in order to “unleash high-quality job creation in high-value manufacturing and technology.”

Specifically, Biden wants to allocate funding increases in direct federal R&D spending to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and other peer-reviewed science research grants to colleges and universities. The program would also direct investments to key technologies supporting U.S. competitiveness – including 5G, artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

President Biden also seeks financing to encourage small businesses to commercialize cutting-edge technology, through a scaled-up version of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program in concert with research institutions. Another aspect of the plan includes workforce skill development through public investment, and training and education for manufacturing and innovation jobs both in urban and rural settings.

Silicon Valley and Anti-Trust: Joe Biden’s relationship with the tech industry has evolved since serving as Vice President under Barrack Obama. Since then, also due to the coronavirus pandemic, “Big Tech” companies have expanded their reach, influence and bottom line (through the unparalleled collection and monetization of data.) Yet, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have also been utilized by misinformation campaigns seeking to influence U.S. elections and liberal democracy as a whole. Throughout his candidacy, Biden promised that he would take on this growing economic concentration and monopoly power. The recent breach of the U.S. Capitol by violent protesters might result in greater urgency for the Biden administration to address this issue. Democratic control of the White House and Congress could lead to new competition laws regulating tech companies’ business practices. More litigation could force breakups or significant structural changes at some of the world’s largest corporations.

Social Media Regulation - Section 230: Even before the November 2020 election and the January 6 Capitol intrusion, Congress and experts debated whether internet platforms ought to remain shielded from liability for content posted on their services, as prescribed by Section 230  of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law regulating the early internet. In a late 2019 New York Times interview, President Biden said about this liability protection that “It should be revoked because it (Facebook) is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy.”  Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have started to seek changes to the law - which predates many popular apps and services - as a remedy for numerous problems associated with platforms and their content moderation.

Digital Divide: The coronavirus pandemic induced a significant migration to the digital sphere, with technology becoming increasingly central to daily live. However, it also exposed inequalities that Joe Biden addressed during his campaign by aiming to close the disparities in the nation’s internet infrastructure. Biden discussed expanding broadband capability to every household in the U.S., investing heavily in rural connectivity, backing municipal-run networks, encouraging more competition among Internet Service Providers (ISPs), reforming subsidy programs and providing funding for cities to help their residents get connected.

The Biden platform also addressed issues concerning the millions of gig workers, who are connected to jobs through tech platforms. Typically, these workers do not receive the benefits that come with being considered full employees. Biden has expressed that he wants to make gig workers employees. In 2019 in California, the state legislature passed a law defining many app workers as employees. However, this law was overturned in a statewide ballot called Proposition 22.  

As U.S. Senator, Biden was part of a bipartisan Senate consensus on the increasing importance of intellectual property (IP) protection. Like the Obama and Trump administrations, the Biden administration is likely to treat IP questions as an important component of national security overall. On his campaign platform, Biden states that he will:

“confront foreign efforts to steal American intellectual property. China’s government and other state-led actors have engaged in an assault on American creativity. From cyberattacks to forced technology transfer to talent acquisition, American ingenuity and taxpayer investments are too often fueling the advances in other nations.“

Thus, Biden also announced to develop new sanctions to prevent theft of U.S. technology, which could be accomplished, in part, through the Deterring Espionage by Foreign Entities through National Defense (DEFEND) Act , introduced by – then Senator and now Vice President - Kamala Harris.

Biden’s platform promised to increase the number of visas offered for permanent, high-skilled immigration based on macroeconomic conditions. He said that he would also exempt from any cap recent foreign graduates of doctoral programs in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) stating that “losing these highly trained workers to foreign economies is a disservice to the U.S. economic competitiveness.”

Contact Person

Paul Linnarz

Paul Linnarz bild

Director KAS office USA

Paul.Linnarz@kas.de + 1 202 464 5840
Contact Person

Dirk Hegen

Dirk Hegen KAS

Project Manager

Dirk.Hegen@kas.de + 1 202 464 5847
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About this series

The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung is a political foundation. Our offices abroad are in charge of over 200 projects in more than 120 countries. The country reports offer current analyses, exclusive evaluations, background information and forecasts - provided by our international staff.