Since starting as a reporter on the tech-and-politics beat in November, I’ve observed a similar ritual for each of the Democratic primary debates: My editor informs me one is happening, I cancel my plans, and I watch in bemused horror, paying just enough attention to notice in case I need to scramble to cover any major discussions on tech-related issues.
I never have.
Attitudes toward Silicon Valley have changed a lot since the last presidential election, maybe nowhere more than in Washington, DC. The past few years have seen tech executives file into the nation’s capital to atone for their companies’ sins: Russian interference, Cambridge Analytica, the Christchurch massacre, and much more. The piling up of ghastly episodes punctured the myth of Big Tech’s unerring wisdom and benevolence. It really seemed like 2020 could be the year when the “techlash” became a campaign issue. Andrew Yang’s improbable run was originally about addressing the threat of job automation. Elizabeth Warren, who has been criticizing monopolistic corporations for years, trained her fire on Silicon Valley early last year with an audacious plan to break up Big Tech, a call that Bernie Sanders joined. Meanwhile, Warren’s billionaire foil Mike Bloomberg, who made his fortune founding a tech company of his own, dismissed her ideas, suggesting she and Sanders didn’t “know what they’re talking about.” For a minute there, it was possible to imagine the candidates duking it out onstage about platform monopolies and big data.
That doesn’t seem too likely anymore. The Yang campaign died in Iowa, with the candidate moving on to CNN pundit heaven. Warren and Bloomberg both dropped out this week after poor showings on Super Tuesday. The race is down to Sanders and Joe Biden, two nearly-80-year-old men who seem more likely to do battle over the past—votes on the Iraq War and trade deals, fond words for Communist leaders, BFF moments with Barack Obama—than on the future of digital platform regulation.
Why hasn’t regulating Big Tech caught on more? The simplest answer is that voters have other concerns. Most Big Tech companies remain wildly popular, as a recent poll by the Verge found. The same poll did find large shares of Americans in favor of aggressive regulation: For example, a slight majority said Google and YouTube should be split up. But there’s a difference between being in favor of something and prioritizing it. Most Americans care a lot more about issues like health care and the economy than what to do about Silicon Valley. And any successful politician knows not to waste time talking about something voters don’t care about. (This is the reason climate change has struggled to become a major electoral issue, even though most Americans support action.)
That’s not to say tech issues aren’t on the ballot this year. While Warren may have been the standard-bearer, Sanders has proven to be a serious antagonist of the biggest firms in his own right. In 2018, the threat of his STOP BEZOS Act nudged Amazon to impose a $15 minimum wage for its workers. More recently, he has proposed breaking up cable conglomerates like Comcast and Time Warner as part of a plan to lower the cost of internet access. Biden, however, has been quiet on tech matters, other than telling the editorial board of The New York Times that internet platforms’ immunity under the Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should be “immediately revoked.” (Biden’s pique may have had something to do with a misleading Trump ad that had recently been making the rounds on Facebook and YouTube.)
Then there’s the guy Biden or Sanders will face in November. Donald Trump’s posture toward the tech giants swings from harshest critic to biggest fan. The operating rubric seems to be how well he thinks Silicon Valley is treating Donald Trump. The mix of carrots and sticks seems to be working to some degree, as illustrated by Facebook’s well-documented reluctance to crack down on misleading pro-Trump propaganda. A Trump victory in November would not bode well for the fight against online disinformation.
It probably would be just fine for Big Tech’s bottom lines, however. Even as US attorney general William Barr makes speeches about the need to curb the power of Silicon Valley giants, his Department of Justice enthusiastically supports mergers, like T-Mobile’s recent acquisition of Sprint, that seem likely to boost profits at the expense of competition. More broadly, whichever party takes charge of the federal government in 2021 will determine the outcome of lively debates going on in Washington over things like Section 230, data privacy, and encrypted messaging.
What would it take for those debates to start playing out more publicly, on the campaign trail? It’s hard to remember now, but the backlash against the Facebooks and Googles of the world didn’t fully take off until the Cambridge Analytica scandal in early 2018. It will probably take some fresh platform hell to put tech issues at the front of voters’ minds once again.
That doesn’t mean the efforts that Yang and, especially, Warren made to inject their ideas into the campaign were all in vain. The days of uncritical Silicon Valley boosterism seem to be firmly in the past. Lawmakers may not be close to implementing things like universal basic income or breaking up Big Tech, but those ideas are now firmly in the political zeitgeist. And they remain available for politicians and voters to pick up again.
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