Democratic divisions emerge over tackling Big Tech

Democratic divisions emerge over tackling Big Tech
© Getty Images / The Hill illustration

Democratic divisions over how to tackle Big Tech were on display at the latest primary debate as presidential contenders sparred over whether to break up Silicon Valley’s giants, how social media should handle President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE’s tweets and whether the government is doing enough to prevent interference in U.S. elections using social media.

While Democrats uniformly vowed to challenge the tech industry and its practices, the debate highlighted candidates’ differences on the issue, as each of the hopefuls offered distinct proposals for reining in companies’ market power, protecting privacy and safeguarding elections.

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The roughly 10 minutes likely marked the longest-ever discussion about tech’s market power and privacy practices during a presidential debate, experts told The Hill, signaling the importance of the issue in 2020.

The candidates seemed to agree only that the government should somehow confront the world’s largest tech companies, but they were divided on how.

“I think that conversation has transformed,” Tim Wu, a leading tech antitrust expert and professor at Columbia University Law School, told The Hill. “[The American electorate] has always turned on our biggest companies and begun to question if they become too powerful. It’s natural, it’s healthy, to start to ask those questions of the former darlings of the Democratic Party.”

The tech conversation kicked off with a question from the moderators about whether the candidates supported Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE’s (D-Mass.) proposal to “break up Big Tech” — one of the first plans she offered after launching her bid this year.

Warren has set the tone for the Democratic debate on technology issues since she announced her proposal back in March, a plan that sent shockwaves through Silicon Valley and put the industry on high alert. But for months, candidates have hedged and side-stepped about where they come down on the issue, sporadically offering smaller-scale proposals to rein in Big Tech. 

None of the other candidates, though, explicitly endorsed Warren’s approach, which would impose tougher antitrust rules and require companies including Google and Facebook to spin off elements of their businesses. 

“I don’t think it is the role of a president or a candidate for the presidency to specifically call out which companies will be broken up,” former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) said. But he added, “We will be unafraid to break up big businesses if we have to do that.”

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE (I-Vt.) also did not explicitly back Warren’s calls for breaking up the companies, saying only that he would appoint officials who would “take on these huge monopolies.”

“I think the conversation has evolved from a draconian view of breakup of tech to, ‘What is the right regulation?’ ” a tech industry insider told The Hill about the divisions on display. “That’s the conversation that we’ve been wanting to have and that we want to engage regulators and policymakers on.” 

Despite the lack of consensus, antitrust experts and tech critics said the debate highlighted the serious concerns among voters about corporate power, particularly with tech firms. 

“When you see an issue like this animate a presidential race, it’s indicative of something that resonates with the public,” said Stacy Mitchell, the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “There’s a lot of momentum, and it’s indicative of widespread concern about the power of tech monopolies and large corporations across the economy.” 

The candidates touched on a wide range of tech issues.

At the debate, tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangYang says white supremacist violence should be designated domestic terrorism Yang jokes first thing he'd say to Putin as president is 'Sorry I beat your guy' Steyer, Gabbard and Yang shut out of early minutes of Democratic debate MORE called for treating data as personal property, O’Rourke said he believes social media companies should do more to combat extremist content online, while Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisFive takeaways from the Democratic debate Gabbard, Buttigieg battle over use of military in Mexico Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE (D-Calif.) hit Twitter over its policy offering more leniency to political speech.

Harris tangled with Warren over whether Twitter should ban Trump’s account. Harris has pressed Twitter on the issue, arguing that Trump has used the social media platform to incite violence and spread baseless accusations. And at the debate she challenged Warren over the issue. Warren herself is pushing Facebook to crack down on disinformation but has declined to join Harris’s efforts on Twitter.

In a memorable exchange, she told the California senator her focus was getting Trump out of the White House, not off Twitter. Warren said the U.S. could better deal with tech companies by beefing up and enforcing the antitrust laws on the books.

John Newman, a former Justice Department antitrust attorney who’s now an assistant professor of law at the University of Memphis, said political watchers would need to go back over a century to find the last time antitrust issues played such a prominent role in a campaign.

“You’d really have to go back to 1912, to the last great antitrust debates, to see any kind of parallel,” Newman said. “And at least back in the day, it was a harbinger of big things to come.” 

But industry voices downplayed the talk of reining in Big Tech.

Steve DelBianco, the president of tech trade group NetChoice, called the criticisms “predictable.”

“It plays to their base to show that they’re standing up to big companies and that they care about election security, privacy, violent and extreme content.” 

Warren and Yang also clashed over the impact of automation during the debate. Warren defended remarks that automation was a “good story” blaming bad policies for the loss of jobs.

But Yang fired back, telling Warren, “I’ve been talking to Americans around the country about automation, and they’re smart. They see ... Main Street stores are closing, they see a self-serve kiosk in every McDonald’s, every grocery store, every CVS.”

A number of Democratic candidates have unveiled proposals to address the so-called gig economy and how those companies treat workers.

The candidates were far more united on the issue of addressing election security, with the candidates uniformly calling for more steps to protect U.S. elections in the future.

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE (D-Minn.) argued in favor of ensuring the security of the 2020 elections by making sure every state used backup paper ballots and passing the Honest Ads Act.

This legislation, which Klobuchar introduced earlier this year alongside Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerBipartisan senators urge national security adviser to appoint 5G coordinator Hillicon Valley: Commerce extends Huawei waiver | Senate Dems unveil privacy bill priorities | House funding measure extends surveillance program | Trump to tour Apple factory | GOP bill would restrict US data going to China Klobuchar unveils plan to secure elections as president MORE (D-Va.), would require social media platforms to disclose who paid for political ads on their sites, along with other steps to increase transparency of political advertisements. But the bill has not moved in the Senate.

Yang saw election security as part of a broader problem.

He noted that Russia’s election interference efforts were an “illustration of 21st century threats,” citing cybersecurity, military drones and artificial intelligence as issues confronting the U.S.

“We all know we are decades behind the curve on technology,” Yang said, vowing to close that gap if elected president.