Published January 16, 2023
Nobody on Capitol Hill is taking issue with President Joe Biden’s recent calls to hold Big Tech accountable and protect the public’s privacy and children online in his Wall Street Journal opinion piece this past week. But Biden’s words show that he is unconcerned with (or at the very least unaware of) the fact that policymakers, especially in the Republican Party, have been focused on these issues for years, long before he joined the fight.
If Biden truly wanted to use his presidential influence to get bipartisan legislation passed, he could have written this piece a month ago during a critical juncture at the end of last year to bring the Kids Online Safety Act and COPPA 2.0. to a vote. But he was noticeably silent and absent. The timing of his piece now suggests his interest in Big Tech reform is purely political and not sincere.
Biden’s piece also fails to recognize the ongoing legislative efforts on the Hill. In fact, his comments now may actually hurt rather than help a rare bipartisan moment in Congress succeed. There has been increasing bipartisan agreement and momentum on both sides in the past few years to address Big Tech’s harms to children and to pass privacy legislation.
But if Biden tries to turn the issue into a political football, if his White House tries to seize control, it will derail the progress that’s been made. He very well may end up driving a wedge between the GOP-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate, and then nothing will get done.
To give a brief history, Congress started debating online privacy as early as the 105th Congress, when it first passed the Child Online Privacy Protection Act in 1998 to protect online privacy for children under 13. In 2013, the House Energy and Commerce Committee convened the first bipartisan congressional privacy working group. Ever since, in each Congress, there have been hearings and proposals around privacy from both sides. And Congress continues to work toward reaching a point of agreement on a national privacy bill. Biden trying to assert himself now and get in the middle isn’t going to get us there.
It is also important to note that while Biden is now allegedly stepping out to champion this issue, when he became president, progress on the child protection and privacy fronts actually slowed. The Federal Trade Commission under Lina Khan shifted focus away from safety and privacy. While the Trump FTC took actions against Facebook , Google, and YouTube for privacy and COPPA violations, Khan has allowed the COPPA rulemaking updates started in 2018 under the Trump administration to languish. She is too busy stopping mergers to focus on protecting people online.
And finally, Biden and his administration should recognize that Republicans have been taking the lead on calling out Big Tech out for its bad behavior . Several hearings in the last few years have been held under Republican majorities, who brought in Big Tech CEOs for questioning, on privacy and other topics .
So, while Biden is welcome to join the party now, he should understand that he’s pulling up to a work already in progress and that the best way for him to help, if he’s really serious about making tech a priority, is to acknowledge the work Congress and advocates are already doing and lend his support to existing bipartisan bills such as the Kids Online Safety Act and COPPA 2.0 without trying to reframe or own the issue politically.
This is a moment we want to flourish. Congress should continue trying to work across the aisle. Legislators must remember the focus is on fixing Big Tech’s problems and not retreat to their political sides. The bottom line is privacy and children’s safety reforms need to happen. These reforms will happen in spite of partisan rhetoric, not because of it.
Clare Morell is a Policy Analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she works on EPPC’s Technology and Human Flourishing Project. Prior to joining EPPC, Ms. Morell worked in both the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice, as well as in the private and non-profit sectors.
Clare Morell is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she directs EPPC’s Technology and Human Flourishing Project. Prior to joining EPPC, Ms. Morell worked in both the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice, as well as in the private and non-profit sectors.