Technology policy at a crossroads
Originally published in Mexico Today on December 12, 2020. Available here.
By Aranza García and Cristina Martínez Pinto.
Now that the presidential transition in the US is set to begin, it is time to focus on policy priorities. President-elect Joe Biden has defined four key areas to address during this time and the first months of his administration: Covid-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change. Technology plays an essential part in all of these realms, and in previous years, the tech scene’s rapid pace in the U.S. had not been matched with proper governance frameworks.
Former President Barack Obama was friendly to Silicon Valley. The Revolving Door Project, an organization that documents the movement between individuals in the private sector and the government, registered that around 60 senior employees from Google alone joined the Obama administration in key positions. More than 150 former Obama officials joined Google when his administration was over. On the contrary, President Donald Trump has been critical of the power invested in tech-giants, however, he failed to draw clear policies to address concerns that have risen in recent years, such as the spread of misleading information, tax evasion schemes, monopolistic practices, and even mass surveillance, amongst many others.
On the one hand, big-tech companies were key donors to President-elect Joe Biden, and on the other hand, he has stated that he will take a tough stance on tech firms to regulate harmful business models. There are contrasting speculations about where the focus on technology policy will be in the new Biden-Harris administration, from antitrust enforcement to cybersecurity. Experts identify five main scenarios:
Regulation on Tech-firms. – Democrats have tried to ensure greater competition in the marketplace to support small and medium-tech companies and therefore protect the consumer. Biden has highlighted that social networks have not done enough in controlling hate speech and avoiding misinformation. Both policymakers and tech leaders have expressed the need for a federal regulation regarding privacy rights, like the General Data Protection Regulation guidelines in the European Union (GDPR) which were recently adapted and adopted in California. The spread of Covid-19 has increased online work, school, and socializing, hence the alarming need to create and strengthen data privacy regulations.
Anti-bias enforcement. – Addressing the racial bias in artificial intelligence systems is crucial, given that these are used in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, and education, amongst many other areas. As a former district attorney and as a daughter of immigrants, Senator Harris has expressed her concern about technical flaws in facial recognition systems that struggle to identify apart faces of dark-skinned populations, which is particularly worrying given that these technologies are used in law enforcement.
Worker Rights. – Many of the most lucrative tech firms use independent contractors as their human workforce. Given the new administration’s priority to address economic recovery and the social disparities’ the pandemic has created, Biden-Harris may promote workers’ financial security through employee benefits. This will be most likely a consensus, given that tech giants have agreed this disparity must be addressed.
Relations with China. – Foreign government interference has always been avoided by American governments, and Biden-Harris will be no exception. What’s more, President-elect has stated to support supply chains in the U.S., and thus, he might have to continue imposing bans on Chinese firms. In terms of Chinese technology, it is likely that it will continue to be treated as a matter of national security, given the demonstrated ability of Chinese companies such as TikTok or Huawei to threaten data security.
Digital infrastructure. – Policies for the development and creation of digital infrastructure will focus on bridging the digital divide by making broadband affordable for all, as well as by facilitating access to all kinds of digital services, from medicine and education to financial services such as mortgages and loans.
In terms of the U.S.- Mexico bilateral relation, there are expected changes coming its way that will also have an impact on the tech policy scene. For instance, changes in immigration policy will likely privilege highly skilled Mexican workers in tech through H-1B visas as President Trump’s restrictions will likely be revoked. Even more, Biden-Harris have promised to expand the number of H-1B visas available.
The recent signing of the U.S., Mexico, Canada Agreement (USMCA) presents a strong momentum for science, technology, and innovation cooperation. The USMCA provides a good environment to support companies across all industries. For instance, the agreement prohibits digital tariffs and enables free cross-border data flow, allowing manufacturers to share data freely, optimize, and digitize their inventories. It also allows providers of online and cloud services to process content at scale, facilitating trade across industries that rely on the internet in both Mexico and the U.S.
As President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has placed his administration focus on tackling corruption and in bridging inequality gaps, there is a window of opportunity for leveraging digital technologies to achieve these goals. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, digital transformation policies can become the backbone of economic growth and employment creation, both in the U.S. and Mexico. Thus, it will be critical for Mexican policymakers to understand the current transition context and the challenges and opportunities for bilateral collaboration that the technology front presents. Mexico is at a crossroads where it needs to seize all opportunities to ensure a thriving North American region.
*Aranza García is a policy consultant and an advocate for the responsible design of artificial intelligence systems. She is the Technology, Innovation & Policy Fellow at the U.S.-Mexico Foundation. Aranza holds a B.A. in International Relations from Universidad Iberoamericana and a Master in Public Policy from King’s College London. Twitter: @aranza_g
**Cristina Martínez Pinto is a public interest technology practitioner specialized in the civic technology sphere. She is interested in digital transformation, new technologies for social good, and public sector innovation. Cristina holds a B.A. in International Relations from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM), and a Master in Public Policy from Georgetown University. Twitter: @pintomar43
***The U.S.-Mexico Foundation is a binational non-profit organization dedicated to fostering bilateral cooperation and improving the understanding between the United States and Mexico by activating key people in the relationship that once were dormant. Twitter: @usmexicofound