For US President Joe Biden, alongside the legacy of his predecessor, he will need to address several big tech issues affecting Ireland. Here are five important ones.
1. The transatlantic data protection problem
The first Ireland-related tech issue that is likely to present itself to the Biden administration is the thorny question of transatlantic data flows. This is before the Irish High Court, having caused international ructions last summer when Europe's top court struck down the transatlantic 'Privacy Shield' data transfer agreement.
The European court ruled that the US treats EU citizens' privacy too badly to allow data transfers to continue. Consequently, it said that data regulators should start shutting some of those flows off. Panic ensued as the Irish Data Protection Commissioner ordered Facebook to stop its transatlantic data flows. And now we're back in the High Court, with Facebook (and most business lobby groups) arguing that the future of transatlantic trade could be at stake.
But the challenge for Biden is a fundamental one - the EU and the US do not agree on what an acceptable level of 'security surveillance' of citizens' data is. The Americans believe it's a proportionate security matter while Europeans believe it's a human rights issue. Will Biden sanction the cessation of blanket security monitoring of Europeans' data on services such as Facebook?
2. Tax and US investment into Ireland
Some Americans feel that there is still unfinished business with regard to US multinationals using foreign countries as effective tax shelters. Although much of what earned Ireland its tax haven notoriety has been pared back, there will be pressure from sections of Biden's party - as well as the Trump Republicans to whom Biden says he now wants to reach out - to be visibly encouraging more US companies to consolidate their jobs and investment at home, rather than abroad.
It seems unlikely that web giants such as Google and Facebook would ditch their Irish operations, partially because they need to have a European base to tackle things like customer support and regulatory compliance. But there may be some big decisions from long-standing multinationals here in 2021. Intel stands out - it's being hammered by rival technologies at the moment and may have to reorganise some of its infrastructure. Its new CEO, Pat Gelsinger, is a more hands-on technical lead than the outgoing CEO, Bob Swan. That could mean a desire for tighter control over manufacturing closer to home, if a Biden administration is minded to push greater incentives for US tech firms.
3. A Big Tech breakup
There are signs that Big Tech faces a new wave of enthusiasm for being broken up by the Biden administration. Senior figures in the Democratic Party have led calls for the forced breakup of tech titans, especially Google, Facebook and Amazon. In Ireland, this could have a seismic effect - Google alone employs 8,000 people in Dublin.
One of those leading the charge is Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Biden ally who MC'd the inauguration event last Wednesday and who is likely to chair the Senate's antitrust committee. Klobuchar is vocally in favour of the breakup of Big Tech. If she wants legal cover, she'll have it in Biden's proposed Attorney General, Merrick Garland, who taught antitrust law at Harvard Law School and has published articles in multiple law journals on the topic.
4. The Facebook misinformation challenge
In his inauguration speech, Biden repeatedly spoke about standing up for the truth in an era of lies and misinformation. Does this translate into more aggressive action against large-scale misinformation on social media networks? If so, how might he do this without threatening the near-libertarian standard that Americans attach to freedom of speech?
It probably won't matter much to Biden that both companies' senior executives clearly align themselves more with the Democrats than with Republicans. From Biden's perspective, Facebook and YouTube are partially responsible as breeding grounds for right wing populism that facilitates figures like Trump. This can be fairly disputed, of course - some studies show that it is actually television and newspaper groups, increasingly polarised due to their desperate chase for income in a digital era, that harden citizens' attitudes against each other. But Biden can't change news economics in four years, so he may just try to blunt the edges of its online extremism first.
Ironically, Biden may be significantly helped out here by the European Union. Our incoming Digital Services Act will be the biggest single piece of law tightening online content standards in history. It's very likely that it will have the same effect as the GDPR - a global tech standards law brought in by Europeans.
5. Huawei and China
Huawei employs several hundred people in Ireland and is still the third biggest smartphone brand here (and across Europe). President Trump waged war on Huawei as a proxy for Chinese trade and China's growing indigenous industrial power. Will a Biden administration be as tough on Huawei?
Key things to look for are the US Commerce Department's 'restricted' list, the key source of Huawei's trade difficulties. That's the instrument which, for example, disallows Google from allowing Huawei access to its Play Store - killing Huawei phone sales everywhere except China.
If Biden's incoming administration rescinds that, it will be a big deal for Chinese tech firms. Biden is no tech expert himself, but is classed as an instinctive dealmaker. Global policy analysts may therefore look for relaxation of Huawei's trading status to be linked to a larger trade deal with China.