via The Washington Post: Technology 202

Silicon Valley can breathe a sigh of relief after that Democratic debate

– July 31, 2019

CAT ZAKRZEWSKI with Tonya Riley


Silicon Valley executives can breathe a sigh of relief. As two of the tech industry’s top challengers appeared in last night’s Democratic debate, its recent political woes got little airtime. 

Right out of the gate, it seemed like it could be a tough night for techies, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) slammed Amazon in his opening remarks, calling out the company for not paying “one nickel in federal income tax” last year. But mentions of other tech companies — or privacy, data breaches or their expanding power — largely stopped there. Except if you count when former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper said “Google it.”

That’s surprising given how the two top-polling candidates onstage, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have made Facebook and Amazon symbols of their broader push against the concentration of corporate power on the 2020 campaign trail.

Warren particularly made a splash with her plan to break up Google, Facebook and Amazon earlier this year, but antitrust issues didn’t come up at all last night — even after federal agencies announced a flurry of new investigations into tech companies’ power in the weeks since the first round of debates last month. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Post.)

Big Tech was clearly preparing for a challenge from the liberal candidates. One trade group, TechNet, issuing a warning before the debates kicked off that “big doesn’t automatically mean bad.”

“The growth and expansion of these companies should be a source of pride because it has led to jobs and opportunities across the entire country,” said TechNet chief executive Linda Moore in a blog post. “As the candidates continue to formulate their ideas to promote healthy economic competition, we want to ensure we do not stray from the core mission of antitrust law to protect consumers from harm.”

Technology companies have been a ripe target for candidates this campaign season as public trust in the companies has faltered in the wake of high-profile data privacy mishaps, such as Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. But as candidates tried to prove onstage that they were the contender who could ultimately take on President Trump, they focused on other hot-button political topics with perhaps broader appeal, such as health care, immigration and climate change.

These questions were largely orthodox horse race stuff,” said Matthew Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, a think tank that has called for greater antitrust action against the tech giants.

There’s been a shift in public opinion about the tech companies in the last four years — but it’s not clear if that’s going to impact voters’ decisions at the polls in 2020.

A Pew Research study published earlier this week found that members of both political parties are much less positive about the technology companies. About 50 percent of people surveyed by Pew said technology companies are having a positive impact on the country, down from four years ago, when 71 percent said the companies were having a positive impact.

But people still don’t seem to distrust them as much as other institutions that have been political targets. While 33 percent of respondents said technology companies are having a negative impact on the U.S., there was a 39 percent faction that said the same of banks and 64 percent about the news media.

However, tech giants such as Amazon and Google still have cause for concern beyond tech policy issues: Pew found 53 percent of Americans say large corporations specifically are having a negative effect on the country. That’s likely why most of the candidates have been linking the companies to broader themes around how corporate giants are exacerbating economic inequality in the U.S. At one point last night, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg made a quick reference to his new plan to take on gig economy companies such as Uber and Lyft to ensure that drivers who are currently classified as independent contractors get more protections, including a minimum wage.

It’s likely that there could be more tech news onstage tonight as the second round of debates kicks off. Both Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.Y.) will be onstage, and they have deep ties to Silicon Valley.

It could also be tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s last chance to be on the debate stage and make his case for a universal basic income, which he says will protect American workers against a coming wave of job automation driven by artificial intelligence. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who sued Google last week for censoring her campaign, will have her moment in the spotlight. Expect her to potentially make a case against the company’s dominance. She said during an interview on Fox News this week that Google’s power is a threat to elections and free speech.

“Tech platforms will continue to be in the spotlight because they are unavoidable centers of power in our elections and our commerce,” Stoller told me.

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