The apparent election of Joe Biden as the forty-sixth president signals the need to begin probing the cyberspace policy legacy of the administration of President Donald J. Trump. President Trump and his administration adopted policies and behaved in ways that will affect how President-Elect Biden starts to formulate and implement his cyber policies. Overall, President Trump’s legacy is decidedly mixed. His administration confronted China on technology issues, embraced forward-leaning military cyber operations, and moved towards regulating the domestic technology industry. However, President Trump weakened democracy through disinformation, and his administration did not make progress on persistent problems, including cybercrime.
Cyberspace and Democracy
President Trump entered office after an election darkened by foreign cyber interference and in a global context of declining internet freedom. With democracy under threat in cyberspace, the Trump administration confronted an unprecedented challenge. The administration’s response constitutes a disturbing legacy.
Actions to improve election cybersecurity since 2016—led by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in the Department of Homeland Security—paid dividends. Although controversies arose, federal and state governments strengthened election cybersecurity, and the government and private sector worked more collaboratively. The 2020 election is widely seen as one of the most secure on record.
However, President Trump’s attacks on the electoral process, especially through online disinformation, threatened democracy. The danger that disinformation presents to democracies was apparent before President Trump’s inauguration, but, during his time in office, disinformation from domestic sources, including the president, reached epidemic proportions. Falsehoods tarnished the democratic process from within, amplified foreign disinformation operations, and encouraged behavior that made the COVID-19 pandemic worse. President Trump’s firing of the CISA director for refuting the president’s attacks on the election captures how little credit the president will receive for the progress made on election cybersecurity.
Globally, internet freedom continued to decline as authoritarian countries advanced their cyberspace agenda. Digital authoritarianism spread through China’s promotion of cyber sovereignty, and China and Russia gained political traction when challenging the United States on cyberspace issues in diplomatic forums, including the United Nations.
Cyberspace and Geopolitics
The Trump administration’s attempts to confront China’s rising power will be one of its primary foreign policy legacies. Concerning cyberspace, the administration enacted domestic policies and led diplomatic campaigns to prevent Chinese technology companies from gaining footholds or extending their reach. The strategy coalesced in the Clean Network program, an initiative to protect cyber networks in “the free world from authoritarian malign actors,” namely China. This mixture of power politics and ideology produced a technological Cold War between the United States and China that the Biden administration will need to manage.
The Trump administration also enhanced the U.S. military’s cyber capabilities as an instrument of national power, including by:
- Making Cyber Command a unified combatant command;
- Supporting legislation clarifying Department of Defense authority concerning military cyber operations;
- Developing a “defend forward” cyber strategy; and
- Undertaking offensive cyber operations, including against Russia’s capabilities for cyber interference during the 2018 U.S. elections and Iran in 2019 to retaliate for its downing of a U.S. drone and attacks on oil tankers.
Through these measures, the administration sought to produce cyber deterrence by demonstrating that the United States would impose costs on adversaries in cyberspace in response to hostile actions. The effort to deter foreign governments also included public attribution and criminal indictments following cyber incidents. Whether these strategies succeeded is controversial, but the next administration needs to decide how to use U.S. military and other cyber capabilities to deter threats posed by adversary states.
Cyberspace and Economic Policy
The Trump administration leaves a mark on economic policy through its anti-trust suit against Google. The Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission have discussed for years whether to apply anti-trust law to Silicon Valley companies, but the suit against Google constitutes a bold step, the significance of which the Biden administration will determine. In addition, the Trump administration used trade negotiations to achieve better rules on the cross-border movement of digital data [PDF] in North America, achieving a long-sought objective of U.S. trade policy.
President Trump’s reaction to social media platforms’ responses to disinformation during the 2020 election campaign could also affect economic policy. The president heated up a simmering debate about the legal immunity tech companies have concerning third-party content. Although the president’s executive order on preventing online censorship did not change the law, it contributed to an emerging sense that new approaches to online disinformation, including potential regulation, are needed to change the business model tech companies have used for nearly twenty-five years.
Persistent Cyberspace Policy Problems
The Trump administration encountered persistent problems in cyberspace policy but proved no more successful in handling them than its predecessors. Cybercrime continued to grow, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation [PDF] logging a record number of complaints and economic losses in 2019. An alarming increase in ransomware attacks on health facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the expanding dangers of cybercrime. Law enforcement concerns with terrorist and criminal use of encryption flared again. Long-running debates about threats to privacy from private-sector practices and intelligence-community and law-enforcement surveillance dragged on without significant policy developments. Tensions regarding personal data and privacy between the United States and the European Union continued without resolution.
President Trump’s legacy on cyberspace policy has been consequential but not transformative, an unsurprising outcome for a one-term president. The dangers online disinformation poses for democracy will continue, but, for the next four years, the White House is not likely to exploit the office of the president to attack American democracy. Important directions taken by President Trump, foremost the confrontation with China, shape the terrain the Biden administration now needs to navigate. As President Biden’s plans unfold, the Trump administration’s legacy on cyberspace policy will clarify.