Senate Democrats say US needs to boost tech investments to stay competitive

LAS VEGAS – The U.S. needs to boost its investments in tech advancements in order to stay competitive on a global market, three Senate Democrats said Friday at the Consumer Electronic Show (CES). 

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chair of the Intelligence Committee, said one of his priorities for the year is pushing for investments in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, advanced engineering and synthetic biology.

Warner said the U.S. should take action on those technologies in the vein of investments it made last year when passing the CHIPS and Science Act. But he said the country largely took reactionary steps with that bill’s investments in domestic chip manufacturing, and argued that moving forward Congress should get on the forefront on domestic technology investments “instead of coming in after the fact.” 

Warner spoke at CES in a conversation alongside Sens. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M) and Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.). 

The senators underscored the importance of investments in domestic production of key technologies by noting the vast array of innovations on display at the show, ranging from advancements in automobiles to kitchen appliances. 

They also described other priorities for the coming year, including a push for affordable broadband access for all Americans in order to close the digital divide. 

The Democrats may find allies across the aisle to boost funding if it follows in the footsteps of the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act. 

They also appear to share a potential target with Republicans in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The controversial provision provides a liability shield for tech companies over content posted by third parties and has faced opposition from both sides of the aisle, albeit for different reasons. 

Democrats argue Section 230 allows for the proliferation of hate speech and disinformation online, while Republicans argue it allows tech platforms to censor content with an anti-conservative bias. 

Warner said adding “guardrails on social media” and having a “long overdue debate” around Section 230 is among his priorities for the year.

Tyler Grimm, chief counsel for policy and strategy for House Judiciary Committee Republicans, said during a separate CES panel that content moderation and Section 230 are likely to be a key focus for the now-Republican-controlled committee heading into the new year. He noted, however, that it’s unclear exactly what path the House will take given the chaos in the chamber as it has failed to choose a Speaker after 13 failed votes to kick off the year. 

But Democrats may face more roadblocks with tech proposals in other areas as they head back to a divided Congress. 

If the House Judiciary Committee does focus on Section 230, for instance, one major implication could be that antitrust reform proposals it advanced last session will fall to the wayside. 

Regardless, antitrust reform advocates, like Public Knowledge competition policy director Charlotte Slaiman, have said they are not backing down and will keep up the fight for reform. Slaiman, speaking on a panel alongside Grimm, said she is optimistic about the path for antitrust reform given the energy built by a coalition of supporters over the past few years. 

The Senate Democrats also mentioned the need for a federal data privacy bill being among their priorities for the year. 

In lieu of a federal bill, states have taken action creating a patchwork of federal privacy laws that the tech industry broadly argues makes it more difficult for businesses, especially small to medium sized firms, to comply with the range of laws. 

A comprehensive federal data privacy bill advanced out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last year, but a companion bill failed to advance in the Senate with a lack of support from Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).