When CIOs talk about platforms, they’re usually referring to digital rather than political ones. But as Americans head to the polls, corporate tech leaders should be paying close attention to what a second Trump administration, or a first Biden one, could have in store for them.
The outcome of the contest will have profound consequences for skilled immigration, data privacy regimes, the regulation of AI and other issues such as cybersecurity that all matter to CIOs. It will also shape how America deals with China as a competitor and trading partner—a fraught relationship that’s sparked concerns over high-tech supply chains and the security of 5G communications networks using equipment from Huawei and other Chinese firms.
The election will also help determine whether America can sustain its role as a global innovation leader. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a think tank with close links to the tech industry, points out that the U.S. would need to spend at least an additional $100 billion a year, or an increase of around 80% over current spending levels, just to match what it was investing in research as a percentage of GDP back in the 1980s.
“The reality is that America is no longer the global innovation leader, at least on a per capita basis, and it risks losing out to China over the next decade or two,” the ITIF wrote in a recent study of the likely impact of the upcoming election on tech policy. “Whether or not the two major parties understand this threat and want to prioritize it is unclear.”
What is clear is that tensions over high-tech trade with China are likely to remain high under either a second Trump administration or a first Biden one. But the tactics a Biden presidency would adopt are likely to be quite different to those of its predecessor.
Speaking at the Forbes CIO Next virtual summit held on October 27, Darrell West, an expert on technology policy at the Brookings Institution, said that if President Trump is re-elected, he’s likely to continue his aggressive and unpredictable, go-it-alone policy towards pressuring China for trade concessions. “A company may wake up one day thinking they are a friend of the administration and the next day become a target,” said West.
A Biden presidency is likely to keep up the pressure on China, too, but will almost certainly create a clear set of processes for handling trade negotiations on high-tech and other issues. West thinks it will also want to forge a more united front with the European Union on dealing with the Chinese. While this approach may make it easier for CIOs and other executives to assess supply chain risks in dealing with Chinese manufacturers, both presidential candidates are likely to maintain U.S. efforts to keep hardware from China and other suppliers out of 5G networks in America and other countries on national security grounds.
With Chinese companies pulling ahead in areas such as chips that power artificial intelligence (AI) applications, the issue of how the U.S. government can better support domestic innovation will be on the table no matter who becomes president. Neither candidate looks likely to bring government spending as a percentage of GDP back to 1980s levels, but the Biden camp has pledged to invest an additional $300 billion over four years to help close some of the gap. If he is re-elected, President Trump is likely to continue his current policy of reducing overall government support on R&D while boosting investment in some key areas such as AI, quantum information science and advanced manufacturing.
On cybersecurity, both candidates would likely step up efforts to protect U.S. companies and critical infrastructure such as electrical grids from cyberattacks. West thinks a Biden administration could press for a kind of Geneva convention on cyber arms control, whereas if President Trump is re-elected his administration will keep pursuing a more unilateral approach. If the Democrats win the presidency and perhaps carry the Senate too, they may also push for a mandatory regime that requires companies to report hacks to a national database. Republicans, on the other hand, are more likely to leave breach reporting requirements to individual states.
Finding enough skilled workers is one of CIOs’ biggest concerns, so they will be hoping for an easing of restrictions on H1-B visas and other channels that the present Trump administration has been restricting.
Robert Atkinson, the president of the ITIF, thinks a Biden administration will expand skilled immigration whereas a second Trump one is likely to extend the current crackdown. However, he cautions that if Biden wins, companies can’t count on a swift increase in H1-Bs. “There are a lot of folks on the left [of the Democratic party] who have pushed back on H1-Bs because these are seen as undermining U.S. wages,” he says. “You could instead see an expansion of other avenues and vehicles to bring in high-skilled workers.”
Atkinson also thinks that if Biden carries the White House, CIOs could find robotic process automation (RPA) strategies, which use software to take over tasks from workers, under intense political scrutiny because of fears these will destroy jobs and crater wages. “In a Biden administration, companies will have to be much more careful and cautious about how they portray this. Trump doesn’t mind automation; he minds offshoring.”
Companies’ automation drives could be blunted in other ways. For instance, tax reforms in 2018 made it possible for businesses to immediately deduct the entire cost of equipment purchases from taxable income; previously, they had generally only been allowed to write off a portion of the cost in a single year. This encouraged CIOs and other executives to accelerate purchases of everything from robots to servers. However, the changes will come up for review in a couple of years and a Biden administration would be less likely to push for an extension.
If Biden wins the election, CIOs will almost certainly face tougher rules on data privacy. Both candidates are in favor of a national consumer privacy regime to replace the present mix of different state ones, but the Democrats are more likely to push for a California-style framework with significant compliance costs and hefty fines for rule-breakers. They are also more likely to support a national regime to regulate the use of artificial intelligence for things such as facial recognition systems.
Tech under the microscope
No matter which of the presidential candidates ends up in the White House after the election, it’s clear that the world of technology is going to face more intense scrutiny than ever before.
CIOs will want to keep an especially close watch on who ends up leading key government agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice, which are responsible for oversight on antitrust policy. The Justice Department’s recent move to sue Google for alleged antitrust violations is likely to be followed by actions against Facebook and possibly other tech firms. It will also be important to watch who is chosen to sit on key congressional bodies such as the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee, which issued a report earlier this month flagging multiple potential areas of potential concern, including Amazon’s significant share of the cloud computing market.
The Brookings Institution’s West neatly encapsulated where things stand in his closing remarks at the Forbes CIO Next event. “Over the last 30 years, the mantra has been ‘permissionless innovation,’” he said, referring to a relatively laissez-faire view of technology’s impact on the economy and society. “That era is coming to an end. We’re going to have more public engagement [on tech issues], more public oversight, and more public regulation.”
-By Martin Giles, Forbes Staff