The 2020 presidential election is going to kick off a firestorm of change for our country and the networks that connect us all.
The internet and information economy is at an inflection point: the disruptors are no longer upstarts, but they have become the new giants in every sense of the word. Those giants often operate in fields where there is little regulation to protect consumers, like data and advertising, or bump up against the authority of the government in uncomfortable ways, like law enforcement and encryption.
At The Verge, we’ve always paid attention to how seemingly simple things like broadband access are deeply connected to complicated tech policy debates, and we’ve been closely watching the collision between social networks and democracy. (Casey Newton has been writing a daily newsletter called The Interface tracking that subject since 2017.)
So for the 2020 election cycle, we want to give you a central place to learn about the main tech policy issues we’re following, see the latest news, and feel like you have a guide through it all. We’ll be focused on a few main areas:
- Speech and moderation on internet platforms
- Data and privacy
- Broadband access
- Antitrust and corporate behavior
- Climate change
Most importantly, we want you to be able to keep track of what matters. As US politics has gotten more urgent, it’s also gotten harder to keep track of, with distractions and outright lies pouring in from every angle. We want to fix that, giving you stories that leave you feeling empowered rather than confused.
So to that end, we’re kicking off our election coverage with four guides to the thorniest parts of the tech policy landscape. If you need help sorting through data privacy bills or keeping the Justice Department rumors straight, we’ll have a single place where you can see everything laid out as clearly as possible. We’ll be refreshing these guides through the election — so whatever happens between now and November, they’ll stay up to date.
And make no mistake: the debates on these issues are raging.
Of all the tech policy fights currently going on between Silicon Valley and Washington, DC, the debate over who controls what is published on the internet is the most difficult and the most controversial. Social networks of every size have given voice to millions in a way that has remade the American cultural landscape, but they also play host to a variety of sophisticated bad actors and malevolent forces that have proven impossible to stamp out. And when these companies do increase their levels of moderation, they often do it through an army of underpaid contractors who end up sacrificing their mental well-being to remove some of the most horrifying and disturbing content on the internet. This is a problem without a solution, a set of vast societal benefits with costs we are only just beginning to understand.
Beyond the social networks, a constellation of companies has control of content on the internet, from hosting providers that take down white supremacist websites to cloud services providers that have effectively turned off social networks for insufficiently moderating their users. And then there are the telecoms and ISPs themselves, the largest of which have transformed into major providers of news and information even while winning regulatory fights that allow them to block and throttle competing services.
The government can’t regulate speech on the internet directly since the First Amendment prevents politicians from writing moderation policies for platforms like Google and Facebook. Instead, politicians have seized on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields social networks from liability for the actions of their users — and in so doing, allows them to exist at all. Threatening to amend or overturn 230 has become popular leverage for a host of policy ideas, from enforced moderation policies to implementing encryption backdoors. It is safe to say the fight over what’s allowed on the internet is only just beginning.
The internet economy runs on advertising, and modern advertising runs on data. How that data is collected, stored, and mixed with other data is largely unregulated in the United States. And while almost everyone agrees that a privacy law is needed, the specifics are a subject of hot debate. In the meantime, states like California have passed their own rules, leading to increased costs for internet companies that now must comply with different policies in different states — and serious questions about the balance of power between the state and federal governments.
Interwoven throughout all of this is the age-old problem of broadband access. The majority of Americans have only one or two choices of broadband providers, and too many Americans cannot get online at all. New technologies like 5G are arriving in ever-increasing waves of hype, but the players are the same giant telecom companies that have failed to keep their promises for decades now; it’s not clear why they’ll do what they say this time around. Americans pay more money for slower internet speeds than almost anywhere else in the world, and the reason is simple: a stunning lack of competition.
America’s overall competition policy is due to be remade by our next set of elected officials: the House Antitrust Subcommittee is due to release a proposed update to our antitrust law soon, and there are serious questions about whether companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple behave in anti-competitive ways. But it is also true that these companies are largely beloved, and calls to break them up or otherwise constrain their behavior in the market have largely fallen flat. But as each of the tech giants gets bigger, their employees have begun to speak up, insisting that they not be asked to build products they find unethical. Sometimes smaller is simpler.
The internet also runs on electricity, most of which flows through giant data centers that consume vast amounts of power, while our phones and laptops run on lithium-ion batteries that pose their own set of environmental risks. Promising to plant trees to offset all that power usage has become a fad among giant corporations, but the harder problems of climate policy will need to be solved — and soon.
These issues may not be at the center of the 2020 election since they do not attract the popular attention of issues like health care or foreign policy. But they are issues of enormous importance to the tech and telecom companies that have remade the economy, the culture, and indeed the world around themselves. Throughout the year, our goal is to help you understand the stakes, the trade-offs, and the ideas shaping the biggest tech policy issues facing us. After all, information is power.