Biden's stance on Huawei, 5G and Section 230 still fuzzy

Officials in the Biden administration offered little specificity when it came to China and Huawei, but they voiced support for a cohesive 5G spectrum strategy and changes to social media oversight.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

January 26, 2021

6 Min Read
Biden's stance on Huawei, 5G and Section 230 still fuzzy

Officials in the Biden administration are beginning to offer hints about how they might move forward on a variety of hot topics, including Huawei and China, social media oversight and 5G.

It's still early days of course. And whatever officials say at the beginning of President Biden's administration may have little bearing on what actually happens over the course of the next four years. Further, it's unclear how new developments on these topics and policy pursuits might ultimately affect telecom network operators and their suppliers.

Nonetheless, it's worth sifting through some of the recent statements by current or future officials in the Biden administration to get a sense of which way the wind might be blowing.

Huawei and China

Officials in the Biden administration have offered a decidedly vague public stance on how they might deal with Huawei and China.

The waffling started with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who said this week that "we need to play a better defense" when it comes to Huawei and China, "which must include holding China accountable for its unfair and illegal practices, and making sure that American technologies aren't facilitating China's military buildup."

She did not say what that means from a practical standpoint.

More recently, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo – Biden's nominee to head the US Commerce Department – offered an equally ambiguous stance on the topic.

"I would use the full toolkit at my disposal to the fullest extent possible to protect Americans and our network from Chinese interference or any kind of back-door influence," she said in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, according to Reuters.

Importantly, though, she refused to commit to keeping Huawei on the Commerce Department's economic blacklist.

That's noteworthy considering the Trump administration took an extremely outspoken approach to China by banning US business with Huawei and rallying US allies against the company.

Asked by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) whether she would keep Huawei on the Commerce Department's so-called Entity List, Raimondo said she would "review the policy, consult with you, consult with industry, consult with our allies and make an assessment as to what's best for American national and economic security."

Whatever that means.

Clearer focus on 5G

Raimondo's waffling on the Huawei question stands in contrast to her specificity around 5G. As reported by Bloomberg, she said the US needs to develop a national spectrum strategy for 5G.

"The race is on for 5G. I want America to win and lead, and that requires spectrum," Raimondo said. The Commerce Department oversees the NTIA, which manages the federal government's usage of spectrum. "What we need to do is – and the president has been clear – is to step back and have a national strategy on spectrum, and look to make spectrum available from public and commercial uses."

Such comments are noteworthy considering the Trump administration attempted a similar project with spectacularly disastrous results. Although Trump signed a presidential memorandum calling for the creation of a new national strategy for 5G spectrum by July 2019, the administration ultimately produced nothing on the topic. In fact, Trump left office amid ongoing battles over spectrum among the FCC, NTIA, Department of Justice and Department of Transportation over spectrum for 5G.

"These frequent, public conflicts encouraged a combative rather than collaborative posture among federal agencies and often necessitated congressional intervention. This spectrum management approach is untenable," California Democrat Doris Matsui, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote to President Biden earlier this month in a clear reference to the Trump administration's chaotic management style.

Matsui isn't alone. "Interagency collaboration is at the heart of our nation's spectrum management, which is why the [Federal Communications] Commission should work with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to reaffirm and strengthen their respective roles and responsibilities: the Commission to manage commercial spectrum and NTIA to manage government spectrum. Spectrum experts should collaborate with a common objective, rejecting radical ideas like 5G nationalization or Department of Defense control of commercial spectrum, and ensuring that our nation's international spectrum advocacy aligns with domestic priorities," wrote the CTIA – a trade group for the nation's biggest wireless network operators – in outlining its agenda for the Biden administration.

As Bloomberg noted, Biden's choice to head up the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, has also complained of the Trump administration's scattershot approach to spectrum policy. However, in her first FCC meeting agenda as acting chairwoman for the agency, she made no mention of spectrum or 5G. Instead, she plans to discuss how to allocate Congress' $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit to help Americans who are struggling to pay for Internet service during the pandemic. She will also look at topics like telehealth and broadband maps, as well as the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act that is designed to remove Huawei and ZTE equipment from US networks. She said doing so will make those networks "more secure and more safe."

Section 230

Raimondo said she will pursue changes to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which could change the legal framework governing social media companies. That's not necessarily a major surprise considering Biden said during his campaign that Section 230 should be revoked. However, he did not provide details.

"I think platform accountability is important because I've seen in my own state that misinformation hurts people," Raimondo said in her testimony, according to The Verge. "But of course, that reform would have to be balanced against the fact that these businesses rely upon user-generated content for their innovation, and they've created many thousands of jobs."

Trump pursued changes to Section 230 in order to prevent Twitter from blocking his Tweets; the company did so shortly after Trump incited a mob that stormed the US Capitol.

"I believe in competition and innovation and as it relates to social media companies, I think they need to be held accountable for what they put on their platform," Raimondo said.

Again, how Raimondo's position on the topic might influence actual legislation – and whether that legislation actually impacts social media companies – remains to be seen.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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