As the weeks creep towards the November US presidential election, technology companies remain in the crosshairs on both sides of the political divide.
Republican and Democrat politicos are restless following years of tech scandals such as the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica debacle, set alongside dubious data gathering policies, large data breaches, alarm over market dominance, the inability of platforms to manage disinformation and online abuse, and signs of increasing public exasperation with tech’s power and scope.
These ills have been highlighted in lengthy congressional hearings in which politicians face off with tech top executives. Questions from politicians generally split down party lines: Republicans complain about what they see as platform content bias against conservatives, while Democrats are the interrogators on the bulk of issues that are ostensibly the point of the hearings.
There’s an odd disconnect. The same politicians and their parties utilise and place ads on the very platforms they lambaste. Or perhaps, this is less of a disconnect than the evidence that backs their arguments that the platforms are too-powerful information and disinformation gateways (Facebook, notably, still refuses to remove ads in which politicians lie).
But when the people are all on these few platforms, politicians and parties have to follow. Just like all of us, who (despite the denials of the tech chief executives) really have no alternative place to go.
Facebook’s $3.3 million in donations went to Democrats or Sanders, with Biden the top recipient
Yet both presidential candidates also have connections to the technology sector. US president Donald Trump – even as he rails against the big platforms in his tweets – has had support from, among others, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, and two of PayPal’s original leaders, Tesla/SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, of secretive big data analytics company Palantir.
Unlike Trump, democratic candidate Joe Biden hasn’t (yet) gone on a major public offensive against technology companies, and hasn’t – unlike his former presidential primary challengers, democrat Elizabeth Warren and independent Bernie Sanders – incorporated a top-line campaign promise to break up and regulate the tech giants.
Biden’s vice-presidential partner on the ticket, California senator Kamala Harris, is San Francisco Bay Area based and has long-standing support from Silicon Valley. In addition, several of Biden’s election aides have been drawn from the ranks of Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon, according to the New York Times.
But that doesn’t seem too likely to derail the growing impetus, politically and from the general public, for Washington to “do something” about an industry that wields such immense, obscured power in our public and private lives. And there’s strong backing from within both the Republican and Democrat sides to take on big tech.
The outcome of the most recent sets of congressional hearings is a report that Democrat David Cicilline, chairman of the House judiciary antitrust subcommittee, recently said will aim to “rehabilitate” old antitrust laws to break up some of the biggest tech platforms, which he said “increasingly used their gatekeeper power in abusive and coercive ways”.
Meanwhile, Republicans – including Donald Trump – have made noises about further regulation of the platforms.
And yet, one of the most curious twists is that the tech industry, in this election cycle (and others, going back a decade), has overwhelmingly supported many of those most sharply proposing its regulation and break-up.
In 2020, Sanders and Warren feature consistently in the top three recipients (alongside Biden) of tech campaign contributions. Or at least, tech company employees and political action committees do, as companies do not make direct contributions.
For example, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in the US (opensecrets.org), which tracks political donations, Facebook’s $3.3 million in donations went to Democrats or Sanders, with Biden the top recipient, followed by Sanders, then Warren. Trump doesn’t figure at all in the top 10.
Google parent Alphabet’s top 10 recipients of $11 million in donations include Sanders and nine democrats. Biden is top, then Sanders, then Warren. Over 90 per cent of all donations went to Democrats. No Trump.
At Amazon ($5.2 million in donations), the top three recipients are Sanders, Biden, then Warren. Trump, the only Republican, comes in sixth. At Apple ($2.6 million), it’s Sanders, Biden, then Warren, with Trump eighth. At Microsoft ($6.7 million) it’s Biden, Sanders, then Warren, and Trump fifth (with just $74,000 vs Biden’s $516,000). At Oracle ($1.78 million), it’s Biden, Sanders and Warren, with Trump fourth.
The surprise of the batch is Palantir, whose top 10 includes eight Democrats (Biden at the top), two independents and zero Trump. Tesla features Sanders first, Biden second, and Trump seventh (with just $7,000). SpaceX has three Republicans in the top 10, but none is Trump, and has Sanders first, then Biden.
What does it mean? Well, it certainly highlights that tech employees – who skew young – are more left-leaning. More interestingly, it suggests employees are at the very least, comfortable with some candidates’ strong anti-big tech rhetoric and policy proposals, diverging from their own employers’ top management, an attitude which – alongside the proposed regulation and use of anti-trust laws by politicians – may significantly reshape technology companies in the future.