Vice President-elect Kamala Harris walks a fine line with tech industry

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Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris (left) and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (right) talk during an event at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, in 2015.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Toward the end of an April 2018 hearing in the nation’s capital, Sen. Kamala Harris leaned into her microphone and offered Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a frank and unflattering assessment of his company.

“I have to tell you, I’m concerned about how much Facebook values trust and transparency,” the California Democrat . The CEO was being , a data consultancy that scraped user information from the social network to help Donald’s Trump’s 2016 candidacy.

Then Harris, who is now after , zeroed in on a particularly troubling point: Facebook’s failure to tell users that Cambridge Analytica had . “Were you part of a discussion that resulted in a decision not to inform your users?” the senator asked Zuckerberg. 

Looking uncomfortable, the CEO responded, “I don’t remember a conversation like that.” 

Congressional hearings are always political theater, but the encounter offered a glimpse into the adversarial stance Harris could take with Big Tech, despite her being a fan favorite in the industry for years. During her campaigns for California attorney general, US senator for California and president, Harris , including former Apple design guru Jony Ive, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. On Saturday, for her “remarkable achievement — shattering glass ceilings and norms around what leadership looks like.” Harris has made speeches at Google and Facebook, and her brother-in-law, Tony West, is Uber’s top lawyer.

But, as Silicon Valley in Washington, her history with the industry doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll let those companies off the hook, some experts say.

“She’s a former prosecutor,” said David Balto, previously a lawyer in the Justice Department’s antitrust division and whose clients now include tech companies. “She has a savvy understanding of the kind of balance that needs to be drawn in tech.”

Unlike other senators, who’ve been called out of touch with the world of technology, Silicon Valley is her home turf. Harris was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and spent more than two decades working there, and she’s also close to several tech bigwigs.

“She has a savvy understanding of the kind of balance that needs to be drawn in tech.”

David Balto, former lawyer in the Justice Department’s antitrust division

While Harris has supported laws on , and , it’s likely she won’t take a hardline stance on Silicon Valley if elected vice president, analysts say. Rather, she’ll push to strike a balance between corralling Big Tech companies and simultaneously maintaining those relationships.

“I believe that the tech companies have got to be regulated,” Harris said in an interview with last year, though she stopped short of saying the major companies should be broken up. “My first priority is going to be that we ensure that privacy is something that is intact and that consumers have the power to make decisions about what happens with their personal information.”

The Biden-Harris campaign, Facebook and Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment. Apple, Google and Uber declined to comment.

Silicon Valley ties

Harris began years ago, long before Silicon Valley executives were making regular appearances before Congress. While she was running for California state attorney general in 2010, she to speak to the company’s employees. 

She spoke of her “pride of being in California.” Harris was in campaign mode, and took a cozy tone with the tech giant in her “backyard.” 

“This is a short drive to come here,” she told the crowd. “We’re family.”

Five years later, Harris stopped by Facebook’s headquarters shortly after she announced her bid for the US Senate. Alongside Sandberg, Harris spoke about to a group of teenagers.

“Contributors want access to a politician who will win and take their phone call.”

Dean Lacy, government professor at Dartmouth College

The vice presidential candidate’s ties to don’t end there. She’s friendly with Laurene Powell Jobs, the billionaire philanthropist and widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and attended the wedding of Sean Parker, Napster co-founder and Facebook’s first president. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and venture capitalist John Doerr . And a handful of Harris’ former aides now work at tech companies, including Google, Amazon and .

“Tech companies seem to like Harris’ policy instincts, which are less regulatory than socialist Democrats and less tech-hostile than populist Republicans,” said Dean Lacy, government professor at Dartmouth College. “Campaign contributions are about access. Contributors want access to a politician who will win and take their phone call.”

Harris’ connections have garnered loads of campaign money from the industry. Among the top 20 donors to her presidential campaign were employees from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, along with employees from Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, according to . In all, Harris raised $40 million before dropping out of the race in December.

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When Biden in August, campaign donations poured in. Nearly $11 million was raised on donation-processing platform ActBlue in the four hours after Biden’s announcement — making it the biggest fundraising day in the history of his campaign at that time, according to . It’s unclear what percentage of the donations came from Silicon Valley.

Since then, the Biden-Harris ticket has raked in tech money. In September, employees from Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple donated more than $1.5 million to the campaign, . That’s more than triple the $450,000 Biden raised from those companies’ employees in July. By comparison, Trump’s campaign raised a total of just $106,000 from that same group since January.

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley faces antitrust threats from lawmakers and regulators on several fronts. Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook are all under investigation by the House Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee. The leaders of those companies attended a hearing before the subcommittee in July. All four companies are also being probed by the Department of Justice or Federal Trade Commission. The DOJ has filed a against Google.

“This fight against Google, Facebook and Amazon, this anti-monopoly movement, has reached a level of maturity,” said Barry Lynn, director of the Open Markets Institute, a vocal proponent on antitrust enforcement in the tech world. 

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