President Biden plans to call for tougher regulation of Silicon Valley in Tuesday’s State of the Union, leveraging the prime-time spotlight to galvanize Republicans and Democrats against industry abuses and signaling a new priority for his administration in its third year.
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reed is playing a key role in crafting the policy sections of the State of the Union address, according to two of the people. Reed is a prominent tech industry critic, and shortly before joining the administration, he wrote a 2020 op-ed criticizing Section 230, the tech industry’s prized legal shield that protects companies from culpability over the posts, photos and videos that people share on their platforms.
White House officials caution, however, that the text of the speech is in flux and will be finalized over the next few days. This weekend, Biden is heading to Camp David, where he will sit down with a coterie of top aides, including Reed, senior advisers Anita Dunn and Mike Donilon, and Vinay Reddy, the director of speech writing, to work on the address.
Aides emphasized Biden will largely focus on the administration’s achievements over the past two years, and the president will look to explain to the American people how his legislative agenda will improve their lives. In particular, they said, he will focus heavily on economic growth and his work to strengthen international alliances.
The plans signal the administration’s renewed focus on tightening restrictions on Silicon Valley, following setbacks during Biden’s first two years in office. Historic, bipartisan efforts to pass new competition and privacy laws faltered last year in the narrowly Democratic-controlled Congress. Now such efforts face long odds in a divided Congress, where newly empowered House Republicans say they plan to focus on allegations that social media companies censor content under government pressure. The House Oversight Committee will host a hearing next week on Twitter’s content moderation decisions in the run-up to the 2020 election.
Biden rode to office on a wave of campaign rhetoric against the tech industry, and his early appointments of some of the industry’s toughest critics to key regulatory roles suggested a new era of competition and privacy enforcement had arrived. But those ambitions have largely not materialized, set back by resource constraints, partisan divisions and competing priorities.
The Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department have brought major cases against tech companies, including a lawsuit to break up Google and a suit to block Microsoft’s purchase of the gaming company Activision. But such cases face an uphill battle in courtrooms. This week, the FTC lost its bid to block Meta, the parent company of Facebook, from buying the virtual reality start-up Within.
Biden’s speech signals both a renewed priority and the beginning of a new approach, which will require support from Republicans in Congress.
“This is potentially a watershed moment, and the State of the Union will hopefully be a great moment for President Biden to lay out a bold agenda that protects America’s kids, families and consumers from the downsides of Big Tech,” said Jim Steyer, the CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, an organization that advocates for children’s safety online. Reed previously served as a senior adviser at Common Sense Media.
A focus on tech regulation in the president’s annual address sets up a clash with major companies in the industry, which are among the top lobbying spenders in Washington. Tech companies mounted an aggressive campaign involving TV and social media ads and industry-funded surrogates to bat back antitrust legislation last year.
Biden’s renewed tech focus comes as Section 230 sits in the crosshairs, with the Supreme Court set to hear arguments this month in a case that will test the limits of Google’s responsibility for terrorist content on its site.
One of the people familiar with the speech, a Democratic Senate aide, warned that including Section 230 in the State of the Union would be a “tactical mistake” because regulating social media is a highly politicized issue, and including it risks upsetting delicate alliances emerging in Congress on privacy and competition. The liability shield has emerged as a political lightning rod, as social networks become increasingly central to public discourse. Democrats have called on the companies to take a tougher line curbing hate and violence, while Republicans allege that such moderation often censors political views.
One person familiar with the speech preparations said they did not expect Biden to explicitly address Section 230.
Biden has been looking for areas where he can work with Republicans amid the newly contentious atmosphere ushered in by the Republican takeover of the House. His State of the Union will come weeks before he is expected to announce his reelection bid, and while he is likely to criticize Republican positions on issues like the debt limit, the speech is a chance for him to reinforce his political identity as a reasonable figure who is willing to reach across party lines when possible.
Given the frustration and anxiety of people across the political spectrum on technology, it is an appealing issue to the White House for a bipartisan effort. Still, the concerns of Republicans and Democrats on the issue do not always align, and it is far from clear that the parties can come together, particularly as the election season heats up.
Biden briefly mentioned social media in his 2022 State of the Union address, calling on Congress to boost data privacy protections for children and ban digital advertising that targets minors. Last year, first lady Jill Biden’s guests included Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who alleged the company placed profits over user safety.