FRIEND IN HI-TECH PLACES

Bi­den’s new run­ning mate may yet prove to be a crit­i­cal friend to Sil­i­con Val­ley, find Olivia Rudgard and Lau­rence Dodds in San Fran­cisco

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page -

There was a time when Ka­mala Har­ris pulled no punches against Big Tech. It was May 2010 and the fu­ture vice pres­i­den­tial can­di­date was run­ning against Chris Kelly, Face­book’s for­mer chief pri­vacy of­fi­cer, to be the at­tor­ney gen­eral of Cal­i­for­nia.

With the so­cial net­work still smart­ing from the up­roar over its new pri­vacy pol­icy in 2009, Har­ris went for the jugu­lar. “Was Kelly sim­ply a fox guard­ing the hen house at Face­book?” she asked. “If Kelly couldn’t stand up to Face­book chief ex­ec­u­tive Mark Zucker­berg on be­half of Face­book users, how on earth can Cal­i­for­ni­ans trust Kelly to go to bat on their be­half?”

To­day, how­ever, Sil­i­con Val­ley lu­mi­nar­ies prob­a­bly breathed a sigh of re­lief when Joe Bi­den an­nounced her as his run­ning mate. Since Kelly’s defeat, Har­ris has in­ter­twined her­self ever more closely with the tech in­dus­try, lead­ing many ob­servers to be­lieve that she will be more friend than foe.

That is de­spite her stren­u­ous ef­forts to cast her­self as a tech scep­tic, such as by de­mand­ing that Twit­ter ban pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and hint­ing that Face­book should be bro­ken up.

“I don’t think any­body is wor­ried that Ka­mala Har­ris is go­ing to get into the White House and take on tech in a huge way,” says Sil­i­con Val­ley area Demo­cratic fundraiser Cooper Te­boe.

In­deed, he be­lieves Bi­den’s choice will ce­ment the sup­port of the tech in­dus­try’s big money donors, who had looked likely to sup­port the Bi­den ticket any­way but who will now give more promptly and en­thu­si­as­ti­cally.

Sil­i­con Val­ley is a con­stituency few Democrats can af­ford to take lightly: solidly lib­eral, yet af­flu­ent enough that you could eas­ily throw a bar­be­cue ex­clu­sively for peo­ple who can af­ford to make the max­i­mum al­low­able dona­tion of $2,800 (£2,144) ten or a hun­dred times over.

Bi­den had a wide range to pick from, and ear­lier in the cam­paign it had looked pos­si­ble that he would pick anti-Big Tech ac­tivist El­iz­a­beth War­ren. One of her ma­jor poli­cies was break­ing up Ap­ple and Ama­zon.

These donors, ex­plains Te­boe, have a “strain of in­de­pen­dence” in them. “Many, while they hated Trump, and were cer­tain to vote against Trump and work against Trump, were very cu­ri­ous about who would be the Demo­cratic vice pres­i­dent,” he says.

“Some were thrilled at the thought of El­iz­a­beth War­ren and then oth­ers, prob­a­bly more in the donor com­mu­nity, were not so thrilled about that. But all pretty unan­i­mously were at least con­tent with the Ka­mala Har­ris vice pres­i­den­tial pick.”

Har­ris, af­ter all, is a na­tive daugh­ter of the area, born and raised in Oak­land, a city just across the bay from San Fran­cisco. She has close con­nec­tions with the great and good of the in­dus­try that has made the re­gion wealthy and pow­er­ful.

Cal­i­for­nia has never sent a Demo­crat to the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion be­fore, so there is some lo­cal pride in­volved. But her record also shows a will­ing­ness to com­pro­mise with Big Tech.

“Ka­mala Har­ris was at­tor­ney gen­eral [of Cal­i­for­nia] while Face­book was ac­quir­ing What­sApp and In­sta­gram, and while it was so­lid­i­fy­ing this mo­nop­o­lis­tic po­si­tion that it holds now in so­cial me­dia,” says Max Mo­ran, at the Left-wing Cen­tre for Eco­nomic and Pol­icy Re­search (CESR) in Wash­ing­ton.

Those merg­ers are now un­der the na­tional spot­light, with Zucker­berg hauled in front of Congress ear­lier this month to an­swer ques­tions about mar­ket dom­i­nance. Har­ris’s col­leagues re­peat­edly grilled him about emails sug­gest­ing he had bought the apps to kill them as com­peti­tors – but Har­ris had the power to reg­u­late him.

“Rather than take that obli­ga­tion se­ri­ously she was re­ly­ing on many of these peo­ple for fundrais­ing,” says Mo­ran. “She was build­ing re­la­tion­ships with them, help­ing some of their ex­ec­u­tives pro­mote their books.”

That is a ref­er­ence to Lean In by Sh­eryl Sand­berg, Face­book’s longserv­ing chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer. Har­ris is a long-time friend and ap­peared at the com­pany’s head­quar­ters in 2015 to give a talk about cy­ber­bul­ly­ing, pub­licly prais­ing tech firms’ ef­forts to tackle the is­sue.

Mean­while, Uber and other “gig econ­omy” com­pa­nies such as Airbnb now face a law­suit from Cal­i­for­nia’s cur­rent at­tor­ney gen­eral for fail­ing to com­ply with a law re­strict­ing their use of pri­vate con­trac­tors, de­signed ex­plic­itly to out­law their busi­ness model. That model emerged dur­ing Har­ris’s ten­ure.

As it happens, Uber’s chief le­gal of­fi­cer Tony West is mar­ried to Har­ris’s sis­ter, Maya. There is no ev­i­dence that the re­la­tion­ship in­flu­enced Har­ris’s de­ci­sions, and she has pub­licly backed Cal­i­for­nia’s anti-Uber law, but will vot­ers see it that way?

Mean­while Re­becca Prozan, who man­aged Har­ris’s breakthrou­gh 2003 cam­paign to be San Fran­cisco’s chief pros­e­cu­tor, is now Google’s head lob­by­ist for the state of Cal­i­for­nia.

In fi­nan­cial terms, too, the Val­ley has been kind to her. Ac­cord­ing to a data­base com­piled by CESR’s “Re­volv­ing Door Project”, list­ing all known donors as­so­ci­ated with ma­jor in­dus­tries who gave a to­tal of $1,000, Har­ris’s Demo­cratic pri­mary cam­paign at­tracted money from 37pc of tech donors com­pared to 22pc for Bi­den, 22pc for Buttgieg and just 3pc for El­iz­a­beth War­ren.

She also owes more to tech than her ri­vals, hav­ing re­ceived 28pc of her to­tal purse from tech com­pared to Bi­den’s 16pc. Donors as­so­ci­ated with Google gave her $26,159, Ap­ple $12,450, Mi­crosoft al­most $12,000 and Face­book $10,500.

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoff­man was one of her big­gest “bundlers”, chain­ing to­gether $2,800 do­na­tions into a for­mi­da­ble fi­nan­cial base.

These days the wind has changed, and Big Tech is Demo­cratic pub­lic en­emy num­ber two (be­hind the pres­i­dent, of course). It sorely needs an ad­vo­cate, so will that be Har­ris?

In fact she too has changed her tune, call­ing last year for “se­ri­ous reg­u­la­tion” of Face­book, and in May she wrote to Zucker­berg press­ing him on his mis­in­for­ma­tion poli­cies, say­ing Trump ad­verts redi­rect­ing peo­ple search­ing for cen­sus in­for­ma­tion to the pres­i­dent’s web­site were “a ro­bust un­ac­cept­able in­ter­fer­ence in the cen­sus”.

Jami­son Foser, a Demo­crat po­lit­i­cal strate­gist, said: “Sen­a­tor Har­ris’s ag­gres­sive crit­i­cism of so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies for giv­ing Trump spe­cial treat­ment … demon­strates a rapidly grow­ing un­der­stand­ing in the Demo­cratic Party of the threat these com­pa­nies pose to both democ­racy and pro­gres­sive val­ues.”

Many, how­ever, ar­gue that she has been vague enough to leave room for re­ver­sals and care­fully stopped short of con­crete, ag­gres­sive pro­pos­als. Te­boe thinks that she has not con­vinced many.

Per­haps sur­pris­ingly, one staunch tech critic is all but in her cor­ner. Roger McNamee, an early Face­book in­vestor and for­mer men­tor to Zucker­berg who has now be­come a per­sis­tent thorn in his side, says her sway in the Val­ley might al­low her to ad­min­is­ter some tough love.

“Think about Lyn­don John­son do­ing the Civil Rights Act and the Vot­ing Rights Act, or Nixon go­ing to China,” he says. “Bi­den owes his nom­i­na­tions and even­tual elec­tion to the com­mu­ni­ties most harmed by the hate speech and dis­in­for­ma­tion and con­spir­acy the­o­ries spread over in­ter­net plat­forms.

“I’m ex­tremely op­ti­mistic that Sen­a­tor Har­ris, in her new role, will em­brace that chal­lenge … un­less she’s nuts – and she’s not nuts – her fu­ture is about do­ing the right thing for all Amer­i­cans. I think that will be good for ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing those plat­forms.”

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