As the country awaits the outcome of the US presidential election, Corporate America is watching closely, especially Silicon Valley.
Big Tech — like other large US companies — benefited from corporate tax cuts implemented under President Donald Trump. In many cases, the smaller tax payments helped boost their profits. However, not all of Trump’s policies and actions during his first term have played well with Big Tech.
Trump launched a trade war with China, creating uncertainty for tech supply chains. He restricted key work visa programs that technology firms rely on to hire skilled foreign workers. During the president’s time in office, the Justice Department has probed Big Tech for potential antitrust violations, and the US government recently sued Google over charges of anti-competitive behavior. And Trump has accused social media platforms of censorship and bias.
These issues haven’t stopped Big Tech’s rapid growth over the past four years — Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Tesla and Netflix together are now collectively worth nearly $8 trillion, up from $2.4 trillion the day after the 2016 election. Still, tech leaders may be eager for a change.
“I think we have to separate the performance of the stocks from the challenges for the companies,” said DA Davidson analyst Tom Forte.
Another shift under Trump that could threaten Big Tech’s success: America’s changing “standing in the world,” said Mark Lemley, a professor at Stanford Law School and director of the Stanford Program in Law, Science and Technology.
“Silicon Valley succeeds because everybody wants to come here, the best and brightest people around the world come here to go to school, they come here to work at companies, they stay, they found their own companies,” Lemley said. “Even apart from the challenges to immigration … there’s a worry that America and SIlicon Valley might not hold that position in the world’s esteem in the future.”
Much of that could change if Joe Biden ultimately wins the election.
Even on issues with bipartisan support, such as reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, experts expect a Biden administration would take a different approach from the Trump White House. Industry insiders have also lauded the selection of Senator Kamala Harris as Biden’s running mate, given her experience working on technology issues.
Employees at Big Tech companies appear to largely support Biden — a CNN review of campaign reports in September showed that workers at Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple donated three times more to Biden’s campaign in July than to Trump’s. Beyond tech, many American corporate leaders have said they favor Biden, whose actions some think could be more predictable than Trump’s, despite risks of higher corporate taxes and increased regulations.
Here are a few of the key issues for Silicon Valley, and where experts expect Biden would stand.
Silicon Valley condemned Trump’s restrictions on visa programs that tech companies rely on to bring in skilled foreign workers.
Biden has pledged to take a more open stance on immigration. Among his related policy proposals, Biden plans to exempt from any immigration cap “recent graduates of PhD programs in STEM fields in the US who are poised to make some of the most important contributions to the world economy,” according to his website.
“Historically, a more immigrant-friendly policy is beneficial for big tech, to the extent that it increases their talent pool for engineers,” Forte said.
The CEOs of some of Silicon Valley’s largest companies — including Google, Microsoft and Tesla — are immigrants.
The Trump administration has taken an aggressive approach to many issues related to China and technology, including Chinese telecom giant Huawei, the US operations of Chinese tech firms such as TikTok and the export of US semiconductor manufacturing equipment to some Chinese firms.
The White House also implemented tariffs on US goods made in China, and Trump has said he wants tech companies to bring manufacturing and production to the United States. The tariffs forced companies to reconsider manufacturing in China and threatened to raise prices for consumers, but they didn’t lead to a widespread resurgence of US tech manufacturing jobs.
Many Wall Street analysts expect a Biden administration would take a slightly softer stance on China tech and policy issues, Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said in a note to investors earlier this week.
That could help reduce the risk to American tech companies of losing customers in the key Chinese market. Apple, for example, relies on China for around 15% of its sales. And semiconductor companies such as Intel and AMD have also long counted on sales in the country. Biden’s “Made in America” plan does include investments in US manufacturing as well as technology research and development.
Still, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have concerns about what China’s continued technological development will mean for US national security, something the next President will have to manage regardless of who is elected.
Section 230 and Antitrust
Two of the most prominent issues for Big Tech — antitrust pressure and Section 230 — are more complicated. Because at least some bipartisan agreement exists that these issues need to be addressed, it’s unclear whether Silicon Valley would benefit from a Biden presidency.
Biden, like Trump, has called for repealing Section 230, the law that protects tech companies’ ability to moderate content as they see fit, without being held liable for, say, users posting hate speech.
But Democrats and Republicans have differing reasons for opposing the law. Democrats want to hold tech firms responsible for removing hate speech and misinformation from their platforms; Republicans claim that by removing or moderating any content, tech companies engage in bias or censorship.
If, under Biden, Democrats introduced new regulations to replace Section 230, tech companies would likely welcome that more than a plan that simply removes the liability protection Section 230 provides, Lemley said. Eliminating the liability, which is more in line with Republican critiques, could set tech firms up for an onslaught of legal battles over content decisions.
Experts say antitrust pressure on the biggest tech firms is likely to continue regardless of who is in the White House next year.
Democratic lawmakers have in recent years supported broad antitrust enforcement of Big Tech. A Biden administration could also more tightly regulate merger and acquisition activity by Silicon Valley giants.
That could be good news for the larger tech ecosystem, though.
“We might get more competition and more innovation in Silicon Valley in a world where we had more antitrust enforcement,” Lemley said.
Investments and regulation
While these issues are by far the biggest flashpoints for Big Tech, Biden has laid out policy proposals in a number of other areas that are relevant to the industry.
A few examples: It is widely expected that a Biden administration would restore net neutrality, which experts say would be good for the tech ecosystem. His plans to invest in higher education and make it more widely accessible could also benefit Big Tech, which relies on a highly skilled workforce.
Biden also committed to investing $20 billion to build broadband infrastructure for communities that currently lack it — a major undertaking that could help bridge the digital divide highlighted by the pandemic. And Biden has proposed reforming the FCC’s Lifeline program, which helps low-income consumers afford broadband.
“I think that would be net beneficial to all the Big Tech companies, to the extent that more consumers had a high speed internet connection,” growing their potential customer base, Forte said.
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