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Biden, Trump show stark differences on tech policy

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have taken different approaches to tech policies regarding climate, China and big tech.

As President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump prepare to face off in the 2024 presidential election, their contrasting approaches to technology could significantly reshape U.S. tech policy, especially if Trump emerges victorious.

The U.S. president serves as a key figure in leading U.S. policy on technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing and semiconductor chips. The last four years under the Biden administration have seen an emphasis on competing with China through boosting domestic chip manufacturing and implementing export controls, while at the same time challenging U.S. tech companies on antitrust issues and leading by example on AI safety development by requiring federal agencies to follow guidance on AI use.

Should Trump win the election, the U.S. could see less focus on regulating technologies like AI and an acceleration of trade restrictions with China, reshoring of critical supply chains and protection of national interests.

Regardless of who wins the 2024 election, it's imperative that the U.S. president guides the next age of digital technology policy -- or else Europe will lay the groundwork for technology rules, said Tom Wheeler, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Already, the European Union has adopted the EU AI Act and is in the process of implementing the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act governing digital platforms.

We're pretty close to the point where our failure to answer those kinds of questions means that Europe ends up writing the rules, which would be a tragedy.
Tom WheelerVisiting fellow, Brookings Institution

Wheeler said U.S. leadership has largely ignored responding to changes that digital technology has brought to commerce and culture -- something he believes needs to change under the next administration.

"Are we going to keep talking about privacy forever? Are we going to rely on antitrust statutes written in an entirely different time? How are we going to deal with trust and truth issues? For 25 years, we have been looking the other way," Wheeler said. "We're pretty close to the point where our failure to answer those kinds of questions means that Europe ends up writing the rules, which would be a tragedy."

Biden, Trump on climate, China and AI

Climate technology policy will likely mark the most significant difference between a Biden and Trump administration.

Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act, which provided clean energy incentives to businesses. In contrast, the former Trump administration denied climate change and rolled back environmental protections to boost natural gas, oil and coal industries.

In addition, while the Biden administration has focused mainly on clean energy technologies like solar and wind, a second Trump administration could shift that focus to nuclear power, said Arthur Herman, senior fellow and director of the Quantum Alliance Initiative at the Hudson Institute. Herman also served on the National Security Council under the former Trump administration.

Indeed, Herman said nuclear power would likely become a core component of the U.S.'s approach to developing more carbon-free energy under Trump.

"With Trump, we'll see nuclear power moving to the forefront of energy and technology policy," he said.

China also stands to be a major focus for a second Trump term, Herman said. That would affect U.S. tech policy, which has already been evidenced through both Trump's and Biden's approach to China. During the Trump administration, tariffs were placed on Chinese goods like aluminum, steel and solar panels. Meanwhile, the Biden administration implemented export controls on advanced AI technologies to China.

"The Trump administration will be looking with a certain degree of suspicion toward the role of China," Herman said. "How do these technologies support or undermine our national interests, particularly with regard to the role China plays as a strategic antagonist, but also as a technological and economic competitor?"

Herman said climate policy and China would go hand in hand for the Trump administration. He cited China as an example of why Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement on carbon emissions, which Herman said Trump believed was injurious to U.S. national interests and working to China's advantage.

"Green policy, particularly on the part of the Biden administration, from a Trump and Republican perspective, would be seen as one that plays into China's hands both economically and strategically," he said.

AI has also taken center stage in the last year for Biden and Congress. However, Wheeler said regulating AI will likely be more affected by who wins control of the House and Senate after the November election. The Biden administration has already demonstrated the White House's limits in governing AI use.

"Everybody thinks the presidency is this huge, powerful position," Wheeler said. "Clearly, it is limited in what it can ordain in these kinds of circumstances, and there's going to have to be legislation."

Reshoring domestic manufacturing, working with big tech

The CHIPS and Science Act, passed under the Biden administration, aimed to boost domestic chip manufacturing. Multiple companies have already received millions from the CHIPS Act to build out chip manufacturing facilities in the U.S.

Herman said reshoring U.S. industry is an effort that would likely continue under a second Trump administration, including a refocused effort on tariffs as a way to compel international competitors to negotiate better deals for U.S. goods and services.

However, Herman believes there would be less government funding of these initiatives under a Trump administration and a greater focus on "constructive tax policy" for private companies to invest in tech research and development where the companies see opportunities. He expects the Trump administration to incentivize the private industry to tackle technological challenges by "creating an environment which is supportive of investment capital in these areas."

Herman said there will also likely be a difference between how Biden and Trump approach big tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Meta. Though both administrations have targeted the companies over antitrust concerns, the Biden administration has sought to partner with the companies on understanding technologies like AI.

Herman said that under a second Trump administration, he expects pushback against big tech in terms of its "ability to influence regulation."

"Big tech will be treated at arm's length and with suspicion," he said.

Brookings' Wheeler said ultimately, it's hard to predict how a second Trump administration would approach specific technology policies, particularly given the Trump administration's history of making policy decisions personal. Wheeler cited Trump's aggravation with media outlets like NBC, which prompted him to question whether the FCC should revoke the broadcast network's license. Wheeler also pointed out Trump's opposition to the AT&T-Time Warner merger over his dislike of CNN.

"It's a very mercurial kind of a situation," Wheeler said. "I think you can take to the bank that he will crusade against the federal government ... and at the same time, how can he harness that power to his own needs. And who knows what that means."

For additional information on Trump's and Biden's approach to technology policy, see TechTarget Editorial's guide to candidate stances on tech.

Makenzie Holland is a senior news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget Editorial, she was a general assignment reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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