Silicon Valley takes sides in key Senate race

Silicon Valley takes sides in key Senate race
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Big names in Silicon Valley are siding with Democratic challenger Deborah Ross in her campaign against Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrEmboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes NC Republican primary key test of Trump's sway The 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill MORE (R).

Laurene Powell-Jobs, the widow of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, tech venture capitalist Brook Byers and tech executive Amy Rao have all donated $2,700 to Ross, the maximum allowed. Paul Haahr, a top engineer at Google, has also donated $2,000 to Ross via the Bay Area based PAC, WomenCount.

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Burr, meanwhile, received virtually no donations from tech donors in San Francisco and surrounding areas like Palo Alto, Atherton, Los Altos and Woodside during the last two fundraising quarters. 

The tech industry has clashed with Burr over encryption and privacy issues.

After the San Bernardino terrorist attack in December, the FBI requested that Apple create software to allow it access into one of the shooter’s iPhones. Apple refused on the grounds that creating such a backdoor could pose a security risk to customers.

Burr has subsequently worked on a bill with Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinRepublicans caught in California's recall trap F-35 fighter jets may fall behind adversaries, House committee warns Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (D-Calif.) that would grant law enforcement easier access to consumer data. Tech companies, privacy groups and other tech interests vocally opposed it.

"Deborah also hears people in North Carolina echo the same concerns that the tech industry has raised,” a Ross campaign aide told The Hill. “Those are concerns she takes seriously."

Still, Ross has not firmly come out against the bill that Burr negotiated with Feinstein — something the Republican’s campaign was quick to note.

"Deborah Ross has refused to take a position on the Burr-Feinstein bill, whether she would require tech companies to provide unencrypted data for terrorist’s phones," said a Burr campaign spokesperson to The Hill.

"She was asked three times about that on ‘Capital Tonight.’ Three times she refused to take a position. I think that’s telling to Deborah Ross’s desire or her philosophy when it comes to combating terrorism."

The 2016 race in North Carolina, which Burr has previously said will be his last, is an unexpectedly close one, and could help decide the Senate majority in 2017. 

The Real Clear Politics polling average has the race as a toss up, with Ross ahead by just 0.2 points. 

Ross had little name recognition going into the race and experts did not think she would have much of a chance.

Republican political consultant in North Carolina Carter Wrenn told Reuters that he attributes the closeness of the race, in part to Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE.

“We’re not sure it’s a wave here for Democrats, but it’s beginning to look that way,” Wrenn said. “Any Republican running down here ought to be very concerned about Trump’s impact.” 

Though many in tech are excited about the prospect of a Ross victory, she has not staked out a firm stance on encryption issues. 

“Deborah will work to make sure that our intelligence community has the tools they need to keep our communities safe,” said Ross’s Press Secretary, Cole Leiter when asked about Ross’s views on encryption and privacy. “She also recognizes it is crucial there are strong checks and balances on those tools to prevent their abuse and to protect the privacy of individuals.”

Privacy and encryption supporters are optimistic because of Ross’s past work as a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.

“That suggests she would come in pretty strongly in favor of encryption,” said Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

The ITIF is affiliated with the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade association in Washington, D.C., that represents tech companies like Dell, Facebook and Google. 

A policy analyst at an advocacy group focused on tech policy and civil liberties who asked to not be named offered a more simple rationale for hoping Ross wins.

“The most important thing is that she’s not Sen. Burr,” the analyst said.

“I can’t overstate the value of removing an obstacle on these issues in the Senate. From what I have seen and heard from her campaign, I’m confident that she will be good on these issues,” they said.  

Though tech firms haven’t publicly commented on the North Carolina race, in April, coalitions representing companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook blasted Burr and Feinstein's legislation that would give law enforcement more access to user data.

A representative at one major tech company who is not authorized to speak on the election and asked not to be named said his company and tech interests in general had been frustrated with Burr’s refusal to listen to them on privacy matters.

ITIF Vice President Castro expressed similar sentiment.

“The Burr encryption bill is something that people in tech were really frustrated by,” he said.

“I think it misunderstood encryption and how it can be resolved. It gave unfair weight to law enforcement side. It tried to say how American companies should put in encryption in their products.”

Overall, Burr’s policy stances seem to be at odds with the ethos of Silicon Valley.

“[Burr’s bill] tried to say how American companies should put in encryption in their products,” said Castro. “Silicon Valley believes that the private sector should be free to create.” 

This story was corrected to reflect that the ITIF is affiliated with the Information Technology Industry Council. A previous version contained incorrect information.