There is ample room for regulating the online realm domestically, though doing so may first require cooperating with a divided Congress. Reinstalling some form of the net neutrality regulations rolled back by the current Federal Communications Commission promises to prove controversial; expanding broadband access to low-income and rural households, on the other hand, should appeal to legislators mid-pandemic regardless of party. Just as high on the agenda ought to be forging a federal privacy framework at long last: A stalled-out effort in both legislative chambers could benefit from a jolt of jump-starting executive leadership. And then there’s the matter of reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields websites from lawsuits for hosting illegal content.
These last two issues are obviously significant to American companies and civilians alike: What information can social media sites hoover up to serve targeted advertisements, and what should be off-limits? What forms of facial recognition are acceptable in a society that respects civil liberties, and under what circumstances? What obligations must platforms meet when it comes to protecting against illegal content — and what role, if any, should government take in regulating online speech? Our businesses will benefit from clearer guidance, our people from more protection. But just as important, these are questions that countries around the rest of the world have been asking and answering for some time now, while ours has stayed largely silent.
The United States has long taken the view that the Web was built for interconnection, and so ought to remain as open as possible. Meanwhile, China and Russia have adopted a competing vision in which countries control the movement of information in, out and within their borders to promote censorship, trample on privacy and establish a sweeping surveillance state. Democracies used to think their perspective would naturally prevail, and yet the opposite seems to be happening: Because authoritarian countries have presented clear principles and a willingness to wield their power to exclude those who don’t obey, they’re winning the fight.
Mr. Biden, with the aid of Congress and allies abroad, now has a chance to establish principles of our own. With them, he can present a compelling alternative to the Chinese model of so-called cybersovereignty to those nations still on the fence about their digital futures — besides helping this nation chart a more promising path for itself. He must not let the opportunity pass him by.