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Silicon Valley can’t escape the glare of the presidential race

Uber and Lyft drivers protest for better wages near LAX
Uber and Lyft drivers participate in a one-day strike to protest for better wages and better working conditions near Los Angeles International Airport on May 8.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s treatise calling on California to crack down on gig economy companies probably did not surprise many executives in the corner of corporate America she derisively calls Big Tech.

But a message on Twitter a few weeks later from former Vice President Joe Biden landed like a punch to the gut.

Biden not only cheered California’s new law that codified employment rights for hundreds of thousands of workers — a measure that ride-hailing companies and other tech firms declared a menace — he also vowed that, as president, he would push for California-style rules nationwide.

Since the digital age took hold, tech firms have never faced so much skepticism, and sometimes outright hostility, from so many presidential candidates.

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President Trump rails against Google, Facebook and other social-media companies, accusing them of censorship and bias against conservatives.

Meanwhile, the tech industry faces a crop of Democratic White House hopefuls eager to humble them.

In previous elections, most Democrats would have steered clear of the union-backed crusade to expand the rights of workers in the gig economy, not wanting to get caught between two supportive constituencies. Now, even the most mainstream candidates, as well as some of the most tech-savvy ones, are eager to slay Silicon Valley’s sacred cows.

Labor’s resurgence in the Democratic Party, public disgust with IPO windfalls for firms accused of exploiting workers and eroding digital privacy, and the failure of social-media platforms to combat election disinformation on their sites have put a bull’s-eye on Silicon Valley. The waning influence of big donors over presidential candidates has further unshackled White House hopefuls.

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“It is embarrassing for candidates to say what some of these tech companies are doing is OK,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), principal author of Assembly Bill 5, California’s new worker-rights law. “It is hard to be a Democrat and not somehow think something is wrong with this. Tech companies may be cool, but they are still massive corporations that are exploiting workers.”

The gig economy is not the only hallowed Silicon Valley creation that candidates are trampling. Some are also taking aim at a provision of the Communications Decency Act, treasured by internet firms, that shields them from lawsuits when their platforms are used to incite violence, spread defamation and amplify hate speech.

The industry is being accused of excessive lobbying, monopolization and tax dodging. And the longstanding Silicon Valley business model of vacuuming up the data of unsuspecting users and leveraging it for profit is coming under sustained attack.

Gonzalez didn’t have to work hard to enlist Warren in her push for AB 5. The Warren campaign came to her, and the Massachusetts senator wrote an op-ed championing the measure in the Sacramento Bee. Aware that such high-profile support was a potent weapon, Gonzalez then demanded that all the presidential candidates take a position. Many did.

Among those who backed AB 5 were California Sen. Kamala Harris, whose brother-in-law, Uber chief legal officer Tony West, helped lead the firm’s aggressive effort to stop the measure. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an innovation enthusiast and favorite of tech donors, broke ranks with many of them to join workers protesting in front of Uber headquarters in San Francisco and demand passage of AB 5.

Biden became an outlier by not taking sides. That changed the day California lawmakers passed the bill, when he jumped in with both feet, joining his rivals in backing a federal law to provide collective bargaining rights for gig economy workers. The Workplace Democracy Act, proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and co-sponsored by his fellow presidential candidates Warren, Harris and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, would, among other provisions, enable the unionization of gig workers.

Tech executives have become accustomed to public relations crises by now. Most are striking a conciliatory note, perhaps comforted by the reality that few of the tough measures candidates are backing will turn into laws in a Washington where hostility toward Big Tech seems bipartisan but consensus about how to act is impossibly elusive.

“As an industry matures — every single industry ,not just the tech industry — it is natural to attract more scrutiny and more contemplation about how exactly does this work in our society and for our workers,” said Linda Moore, chief executive of Technet, the trade group representing major Silicon Valley firms.

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Among those dismayed by some of the vitriol candidates are directing toward tech is venture capitalist Steve Westly, the former California state controller and a lead Biden fundraiser in California. Nevertheless, he says, the tension hasn’t complicated his efforts to raise money in Silicon Valley.

The industry, Westly says, is all in for Democrats at a time it sees Trump’s crackdowns on immigrant workers and conspiracy theories about social media as bigger threats.

“It’s crazy,” Westly said of the GOP’s posture toward technology firms, a turnabout from just a few years ago when Republican leaders were bringing delegations of lawmakers out to Bay Area tech campuses in an effort to ingratiate themselves with the industry and its deep-pocketed donors.

“There will be virtually no support here for Trump outside a small, diehard band.”

But the flow of millions from the tech industry to Democrats doesn’t carry the same weight it once did; Biden’s chief rivals are raising more than enough online.

“This is not an election to see who raises the most money,” said Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist who has worked as a political strategist for Uber and as campaign manager for former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

As candidates seek to connect with voters and an energized progressive base, “they are saying, ‘OK, public sentiment for Uber and a lot of these companies is low. This issue has passion with labor activists. It is politically more beneficial than not,’” he said.

Some of the candidates have found political benefit in personalizing their fights with the industry, knowing that a public spat with a tech executive can generate attention on par with a Twitter feud with Trump.

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Warren scored points this week when a transcript became public of a Facebook employee meeting in July in which CEO Mark Zuckerberg bashed her plan to break up companies like his. (The Warren campaign earlier this year rented a billboard in downtown San Francisco displaying her slogan “Break Up Big Tech.“)

“If she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge,” Zuckerberg said, according to the transcript published Tuesday by The Verge. “Does that still suck for us? Yeah.”

Warren quickly alerted voters about Zuckerberg’s dim view of her plans.

“What would really ‘suck’ is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anti-competitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy,” she wrote on Twitter. The post got thousands of retweets.

When Sanders didn’t like what he was reading in the Washington Post this summer, he linked the coverage to the paper’s tech billionaire owner, Jeff Bezos. (The Post’s editor, Marty Baron, branded the claim a “conspiracy theory.”)

Not to be outdone, Harris joined in this week. Her target: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. She demanded the company block Trump’s Twitter account, citing posts that she argues threaten and incite violence.

Tech executives may have found some cold comfort when Warren declined to join that crusade.

At least it didn’t become a pile-on.


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