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
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.
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.”