What will the Biden administration bring for civil liberties online?
Joe Biden photo: Wikimedia. Server room photo: EliasSch on Pixabay

What will the Biden administration bring for civil liberties online?

The election has been decided, and Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States. Across the country, people broke out into celebration over the end of the Trump presidency on Saturday, and also immediately recognized the massive amount of work that remains to be done – calling for the cancellation of rents, an end to evictions, Medicare for All, jailing killer cops and more.

That struggle will continue in the tech realm as well. Biden offers very little in the way of progress here.

The Good

There’s nothing explicitly good to be said here. Sorry for getting your hopes up.

The Questionable

Online Harassment

Hidden deep in The Biden Plan to End Our Gun Violence Epidemic is this:

Establish a new Task Force on Online Harassment and Abuse to focus on the connection between mass shootings, online harassment, extremism, and violence against women. As President, Joe Biden will convene a national Task Force with federal agencies, state leaders, advocates, law enforcement, and technology experts to study rampant online sexual harassment, stalking, and threats, including revenge porn and deepfakes — and the connection between this harassment, mass shootings, extremism and violence against women. The Task Force will be charged with developing cutting-edge strategies and recommendations for how federal and state governments, social media companies, schools, and other public and private entities can tackle this unique challenge. The Task Force will consider platform accountability, transparent reporting requirements for incidents of harassment and response, and best practices. 

The Biden Plan To End Our Gun Violence Epidemic

The issues mentioned here – deepfakes, revenge porn, sexual harassment, stalking, etc – must be addressed. They are a scourge for women, LGBTQ people and others who face domestic violence, abuse and online harassment on a regular basis. Even if the threat only appears to be online, doxxing (releasing information about a person) can lead to physical violence. Even the threat of such violence can uproot a person’s life, making them move from place to place to stay safe from a stalker or group of them.

The primary question is, can the government do anything about this? On the issue of stalkerware – applications that are installed on a device so an abuser can monitor text messages, phone calls and web browsing without the target knowing – it could outlaw such apps and aggressively enforce such a ban.

Law enforcement could also take threats more seriously. Time and time again, victims of online threats tell stories of going to the police and being told there’s nothing they can do about it – they’re just words, it’s just some random person online. The advice generally goes “can you stop using Twitter for a while?” or “just ignore them” – but even the publishing of a home address along with physical threats is ignored.

Ultimately, police should not be the first line of defense or the first call to make – social services need much more funding and other resources.

Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality is the simple concept that Internet Service Providers (like Comcast, AT&T, etc) can’t block, slow down or otherwise limit access to content they oppose or that’s from competing services. For example, under net neutrality Comcast (a TV giant with its own streaming site, and an ISP) would not be able to slow down access to Netflix (a competitor).

Biden hasn’t said much himself about net neutrality. While his campaign has made a few statements, I wasn’t able to find a single on-the-record comment from the President-Elect himself during the campaign about the topic. In 2019, Comcast’s David Cohen hosted a fundraiser for Biden, though. And in the Senate, Biden stayed away from the Internet Freedom Preservation Act.

Net Neutrality is under The Questionable because it’s possible Biden may make a push either way here. Obama was also a corporate candidate, and did push – though not strongly enough – for net neutrality.

The Bad

Section 230

There’s been a lot of attention paid to Trump’s calls to REPEAL 230.

Because Biden isn’t posting in all caps on Twitter, there’s not a lot of focus on the fact that he has also explicitly called for Section 230 to be revoked.

[The Times] can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But [Mark Zuckerberg] can. The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms.

New York Times, January 17, 2020 (emphasis mine)

That’s a complete misunderstanding of what Section 230 does – and doesn’t – do: protect online services from having liability most content that their users post. It’s not about Zuckerberg writing something he personally knows to be false.

Government Surveillance

In 2006, when he was a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden went on CBS News’ Early Show to talk about the government surveillance. While Biden tried to appease privacy activists by talking about the FISA Court, his position becomes pretty clear:

[N]o one’s arguing whether or not you have the right to go out and tap and do everything you need to do to track down al Qaeda. That’s not the question here.

Years ago, Harry, I was one of those guys that co-sponsored the bill called FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s been briefed on this matter says that everything that they want to do to deal with al Qaeda is able to be done under FISA, and maybe with a small amendment to FISA.

Senator Joe Biden on the CBS’ Early Show, May 12, 2006

FISA Courts are rubber stamp courts and provide no real oversight to government surveillance. He’s offered no critique or suggestion of reprieve from such surveillance, and no defense of our rights under the Fourth Amendment, during the campaign. In fact, he’s claimed – on many occasions as Buzzfeed points out – that he wrote the PATRIOT Act.

Biden pretended to oppose sections of the NSA’s spying program because it was happening under Republican President George W Bush, not because of a defense of civil liberties.

In 2013, then-VP Biden put pressure on Ecuador and other countries to refuse whistleblower Edward Snowden asylum.

The War on Encryption

Biden has a strong track record here – on the wrong side. In 1991, Phil Zimmermann wrote and published PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), an encryption system for email. PGP would make sure that only the sender and recipient of an email could see the content of the message.

He did so in response to Joe Biden’s 1991 Comprehensive Counter-Terrorism Act, which included a provision that “Expresses the sense of the Congress that providers of electronic communications services and manufacturers of electronic communications service equipment should ensure that communications systems permit the Government to obtain the plain text contents of voice, data, and other communications when appropriately authorized by law.

That act didn’t go anywhere, but it shows how far back Biden’s attacks on encryption go.

Biden also introduced the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, giving federal law enforcement more access to hardware and software designs with a warrant.

What’s Next for Our Struggle?

Given Biden’s long track record of anti-privacy, anti-encryption legislation, his opposition to Section 230 and his long-time support for the fraudulant “War on Terror,” the fight for online freedom must continue as it did under Trump, Obama and Bush. While people are in the streets loudly calling to defund the police, Biden and the Democratic Party establishment are more pro-police than ever. As a candidate, Biden promised more money to police, and modern-day policing increasingly relies on surveillance.

The fight is far from over but we cannot be deterred.

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