US cyber defences, Silicon Valley the giants of Big Tech could be forgiven

As Biden plans to curb strength, Big Tech braces for offensive

US President Joe Biden took the oath of office before an unusually barren National Mall, the giants of Big Tech could be forgiven across the country in Silicon Valley for looking at it with mixed feelings.

While most will be glad that the four-year shambolic experiment with Trumpism is over, they are also keenly aware that Biden is preparing for a regulatory assault that could lead to the largest changes in the history of the industry.

It's a war that, of course, has already started. On the desks of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai of Google, antitrust cases from the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and a string of individual states are piling up. More, including against Amazon, are planned.

This crusade to curb the influence of large tech corporations is likely to move up a notch under Biden. In the presidential race, the Democrats swept to victory, and the Georgia run-off won Senate control. The hand of Biden has been significantly improved to take a tougher position than if Congress had remained divided.

Moreover, a crowd fired up by internet conspiracy theories and galvanized by Donald Trump and others via social media, storming Capitol Hill has provided a convincing excuse for a crackdown.

Section 230 amendments - the 1996 law granting tech firms protection from prosecution of social media content appearing on their sites - seem increasingly possible.

Another indication of the administration's intentions is news that Biden is proposing the establishment of a new antitrust tsar. But, while antitrust action against Big Tech is likely to be a central theme of his presidency and could cause a range of forced or self-imposed break-ups, there are other ways in which the technology sector can be influenced by the new administration.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (left), Google CEO Sundar Pichai (centre) and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

A blue wave may have put him in the White House, but it is the green wave of stimulus spending that will have a profound impact on the US economy, including a US$1.9 trillion ($2.5 trillion) climate plan to boost the use of renewable energy in transport, electricity and construction.

The package includes tax credits for electric cars and other incentives, the development of an emission-free energy market by 2035 and measures to ensure that 4 million buildings meet rigorous new standards of energy efficiency within four years.

Although the most noticeable beneficiary might be Tesla, there are plenty of others. Electric truck manufacturer Rivian and conventional car manufacturers such as GM or Ford who manage the transition to electric vehicles effectively also stand to gain, as could Apple if it could pull off its ambitious goal of developing electric cars that are self-driving, possibly with Korea's Hyundai.

The winners may also be thousands of smaller businesses in the supply chain of electric cars or renewable energy, as well as innovators trying to crack down on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) or other clean technologies.

Cybersecurity would be another primary priority for the new president. The devastating recent Russian cyber-hack on the US government that manipulated Solar Winds software could turn out to be a Pearl Harbour moment, just as the attack on the Capitol has spurred action on social media.

Unlike Trump, Biden knows that if your enemies can cheaply hack holes in your cybersecurity to wreak havoc and steal information, there is no point in lavishing hundreds of billions of dollars on traditional military protection systems.

It is long overdue for Biden to pledge to restore US cyber defenses and to create a meaningful deterrent to those who abuse them.

There is another environment where it is possible that Biden will make an impact. Curiously, it is one of the few places that his predecessor would compromise on.

For all his threats and blustering, it is surprising how little Trump has actually done in terms of controlling the technology industry during four years in the White House.

The most important policy reform he oversaw, by far, was the implementation of a much stricter trade stance towards China. On that particular issue, under Biden, we may see relatively little change.

A softening of rhetoric and an attempt to reduce tensions may occur, but, broadly speaking, Biden seems unlikely to roll back many of his predecessor's measures to isolate China's access to western technology and punish Beijing for its Xinjiang actions.

Indeed, there is an increasing sense that in many areas, however misguided Trump may have been, he was on to something with China. This, after all, is a nation that, facing widespread allegations of industrial espionage and theft of valuable technologies, long ago barred most large Western technology companies from its own market, yet requested access to its own overseas.

Perhaps a toughening of the West's position on China was overdue - and for the long haul, Biden may be minded to dig in.