June 18, 2024

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Kamala Harris walks a fine line with tech industry as VP debate nears


Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris (left) and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (right) talk during an event at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, in 2015.

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This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET’s coverage of the run-up to voting in November.

Toward the end of an April 2018 hearing in the nation’s capital, Sen. Kamala Harris leaned into her microphone and offered Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a frank and unflattering assessment of his company.

“I have to tell you, I’m concerned about how much Facebook values trust and transparency,” the California Democrat told Zuckerberg. The CEO was being grilled by lawmakers over a scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a data consultancy that scraped user information from the social network to help Donald’s Trump’s 2016 candidacy.

Then Harris, who is now the Democratic nominee for vice president, zeroed in on a particularly troubling point: Facebook’s failure to tell users that Cambridge Analytica had misappropriated their data. “Were you part of a discussion that resulted in a decision not to inform your users?” the senator asked Zuckerberg. 

Looking uncomfortable, the CEO responded, “I don’t remember a conversation like that.” 

Congressional hearings are always political theater, but the encounter gave a glimpse of the adversarial stance Harris could take with Big Tech, despite her being a fan favorite in the industry for years. During her campaigns for California attorney general, US senator for California and president, Harris received donations from major tech leaders, including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, former Apple design guru Jony Ive and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. She’s made speeches at Google and Facebook, and her brother-in-law, Tony West, is Uber’s top lawyer. But, as Silicon Valley faces intense antitrust scrutiny in Washington, her history with the industry doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll let those companies off the hook, some experts say.

“She’s a former prosecutor,” said David Balto, previously a lawyer in the Justice Department’s antitrust division and whose clients now include tech companies. “She has a savvy understanding of the kind of balance that needs to be drawn in tech.”

On Wednesday, Harris, who is both the first Black woman and first Asian American woman on a major party ticket, will face Vice President Mike Pence on a debate stage in Salt Lake City. Less than a month before the election, the debate likely won’t devolve into a melee like the clash between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden last week. But it will provide Americans an opportunity to see Harris articulate the policies of a Biden administration, which may be tasked with taming the Big Tech companies headquartered near Harris’ childhood home.

Unlike other senators, who’ve been called out of touch with the world of technology, Silicon Valley is her home turf. Harris was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and spent more than two decades working there, and she’s also close to several tech bigwigs.

While Harris has supported laws on digital privacy, online harassment and app-based gig worker protections, it’s likely she won’t take a hardline stance on Silicon Valley if elected vice president, analysts say. Rather, she’ll push to strike a balance between corralling Big Tech companies and simultaneously maintaining those relationships.

“I believe that the tech companies have got to be regulated,” Harris said in an interview with The New York Times last year, though she stopped short of saying the major companies should be broken up. “My first priority is going to be that we ensure that privacy is something that is intact and that consumers have the power to make decisions about what happens with their personal information.”

The Biden-Harris campaign, Facebook and Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment. Apple, Google and Uber declined to comment.

Silicon Valley ties

Harris began forging relationships with the tech industry years ago, long before Silicon Valley executives were making regular appearances before Congress. While she was running for California state attorney general in 2010, she made a pit stop at Google to speak to the company’s employees. 

She spoke of her “pride of being in California.” Harris was in campaign mode, and took a cozy tone with the tech giant in her “backyard.” 

“This is a short drive to come here,” she told the crowd. “We’re family.”

Five years later, Harris stopped by Facebook’s headquarters shortly after she announced her bid for the US Senate. Alongside Sandberg, Harris spoke about online harassment and cyberbullying to a group of teenagers.

The vice presidential candidate’s ties to Silicon Valley insiders don’t end there. She’s friendly with Laurene Powell Jobs, the billionaire philanthropist and widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and attended the wedding of Sean Parker, Napster co-founder and Facebook’s first president. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and venture capitalist John Doerr raised money for her presidential bid. And a handful of Harris’ former aides now work at tech companies, including Google, Amazon and Airbnb.

“Tech companies seem to like Harris’ policy instincts, which are less regulatory than socialist Democrats and less tech-hostile than populist Republicans,” said Dean Lacy, government professor at Dartmouth College. “Campaign contributions are about access. Contributors want access to a politician who will win and take their phone call.”

Harris’ connections have garnered loads of campaign money from the industry. Among the top 20 donors to her presidential campaign were employees from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, along with employees from Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, according to OpenSecrets. In all, Harris raised $40 million before dropping out of the race in December.

When Biden announced Harris as his running mate in August, campaign donations poured in. Nearly $11 million was raised on donation-processing platform ActBlue in the four hours after Biden’s announcement — making it the biggest fundraising day in the history of his campaign at that time, according to The New York Times. It’s unclear what percentage of the donations came from Silicon Valley.

Since then, the Biden-Harris ticket has raked in tech money. Last month, employees from Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple donated more than $1.5 million to the campaign, according to a CNN analysis published last week. That’s more than triple the $450,000 Biden raised from those companies’ employees in July. By comparison, Trump’s campaign has raised a total of just $106,000 from that same group since January.

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley faces antitrust threats from lawmakers and regulators on several fronts. Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook are all under investigation by the House Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee. The leaders of those companies attended a hearing before the subcommittee in July. All four companies are also being probed by the Department of Justice or Federal Trade Commission. The DOJ is expected to file a landmark antitrust lawsuit against Google as early as this week.

Antitrust advocates, though, feel optimistic about reining in the tech industry, regardless of who is in the White House.

“No matter who wins in November, this fight against Google, Facebook and Amazon, this anti-monopoly movement, has reached a level of maturity,” said Barry Lynn, director of the Open Markets Institute, a vocal proponent on antitrust enforcement in the tech world. “There’s almost nothing the folks in Washington could do to stop it.”

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