Joe Biden’s decision to name California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate in the quest to unseat President Trump means that the next vice president could be not only the first Black and Asian American woman on a presidential ticket in the U.S — historic milestones by any account — but also a Californian who built a career in the tech industry’s front yard.
Born in Oakland, Harris served as San Francisco district attorney and later as the attorney general for California before being elected to the Senate in 2016. And while the newly named vice presidential nominee is likely to bring a deeper understanding of the tech industry to the race, her positions on how a Democratic administration should approach tech’s most powerful companies during an unprecedented moment of scrutiny aren’t exactly crystal clear.
Harris attracted considerable support from Silicon Valley executives in her bid for the Democratic nomination, outpacing other candidates in donations from employees from large tech companies early on. While that support shifted around throughout the race and many donors in tech supported multiple candidates, the industry is likely to be happy with Biden’s selection.
Notably, Harris was elected as California attorney general in 2010 and served two terms, overseeing the tech industry through a large portion of its most explosive growth — a measure that likely proves more meaningful in assessing her stance toward regulating the tech industry than the things she said along the campaign trail.
Still, those were arguably simpler times for Silicon Valley, and ones that predated current hot-button conversations around issues like election interference, misinformation wars and antitrust enforcement.
Playing it safe
As the primary developed and then-rival Elizabeth Warren carved out a posture critical of big tech, Harris seldom waded into thorny issues around regulating the tech industry. During an October debate, Harris avoided a question asking about concerns over second order effects if big tech companies were broken up, instead redirecting to the safer political territory of Trump’s Twitter account. Dodging meatier points about tech accountability, Harris called on Twitter to suspend the president’s account for violating its rules, calling the issue “a matter of safety and corporate accountability.”
Earlier this year, in response to a straightforward question asking if companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon should be broken up, Harris again dodged, though signaled that she is concerned in how those companies handle user data.
“I believe that tech companies have got to be regulated in a way that we can ensure the American consumer can be certain that their privacy is not being compromised,” Harris said. Harris also expressed her concerns about user privacy in a 2018 Twitter thread.
“Millions of Americans have no idea how much data Facebook is collecting, from tracking their location and IP address, to following their activities on other websites,” she wrote.
“In the real world, this would be like someone watching what you do, where you go, for how long, and with whom you’re with every day. For most, it would feel like an invasion of privacy.”
A focus on Facebook
In other critiques of tech, Harris has mostly concentrated on Facebook, denouncing its role in spreading Russian disinformation during the 2016 presidential race and expressing worries over how the company handles the data it collects.
When given the chance to press Mark Zuckerberg in person, Harris zeroed in on the company’s handling of the Cambridge Analytica data misuse to its users. More recently, Harris co-authored a letter to Facebook along with Colorado Senator Michael Bennett after the audit’s largely unflattering results were published, pressing the company on election concerns.
“Although the company has shown a recent willingness to rein in disinformation with respect to COVID-19, it has not shown equal resolve to confront voter suppression and learn the lessons of the 2016 election,” the senators wrote. “We share the auditors’ concern that Facebook has failed to use the tools and resources at its disposal to more vigorously combat voter suppression and protect civil rights.”
In another letter to the company, Harris criticized Facebook’s fact-checking policies for climate-related misinformation in light of a New York Times report.
In spite of the harsh talk, Harris seems to be on fairly friendly terms with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who congratulated her on the nomination Tuesday. Back in 2013, Harris apparently contributed to the marketing effort around Sandberg’s now-ubiquitous book Lean In, sharing her own story. Harris also spoke at a cyberbullying event hosted at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters in 2015 and the two were photographed onstage together.
Antitrust on the back burner?
While we have a handful of public statements from Harris about her views on tech, there’s plenty more that we don’t know. The way she positioned herself in relation to other candidates during the primary might not wholly reflect the kind of priorities she would bring to the vice presidency, and we’ll likely be learning more about those in the coming days.
Right now there are many, many crises on the table for the next administration. If regulating big tech looked like a huge campaign issue back in the pre-pandemic political landscape of 2020, conversations around police brutality and the devastating American failure to contain the coronavirus are now at the fore. Whether issues around antitrust regulation and reining in tech’s power will make it off the back burner remains to be seen, and there are plenty of national five-alarm fires to be put out in the meantime.
While her potential position as the nation’s next vice president doesn’t mean that Harris would be tasked with shaping tech policy or spearheading antitrust efforts, her deep connections to tech’s geographic hub could prove consequential in a Biden presidency and its priorities.
In spite of some question marks around her policy approaches, Harris is a known quantity for the tech industry — one who understands Silicon Valley and who, per her track record, doesn’t look keen to take on the industry’s biggest companies in spite of some recent tough talk. Whatever tech policies emerge out of a Biden/Harris campaign, the fresh vice presidential nominee is connected to tech in a more meaningful way than any other contender for the spot. That alone is something to watch.