This week, a House subcommittee held a high-profile hearing interrogating the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google about their growing market power. But as more congressional Democrats scrutinize corporate America’s monopolistic business practices, their party may end up giving the vice presidential nomination to a lawmaker who previously expressed misgivings about antitrust enforcement when it comes to Silicon Valley.
California senator Kamala Harris’s meteoric rise from San Francisco district attorney to Democratic presidential contender occurred in the span of just over a decade and today, insiders believe she tops Joe Biden’s short list for vice president.
During the 2020 election, Harris’s record on criminal justice proved too steep a hurdle during her party’s presidential primary just a few short months ago. She was dogged by criticism that as California attorney general, she had been soft on white-collar crime like mortgage fraud while pursuing low-level offenses like truancy with zeal. Questions also arose about her refusal to act on her staff’s memo that identified what it called “widespread misconduct” at a financial firm run by Steve Mnuchin, who donated to her Senate campaign.
With Biden’s vice presidential announcement expected early next month, Harris’s record is under renewed scrutiny. Biden has been trying to shore up support from his party’s skeptical activist base, and Harris’s views on antitrust could present another potential stumbling block.
“We Have to Allow These Businesses to Develop and Grow”
As far back as her 2010 run for attorney general, Harris was making public statements against antitrust enforcement against Big Tech. That year, European regulators and the Texas attorney general’s office had launched antitrust investigations of Google.
Less than three weeks after the Texas investigation was announced, Harris appeared at Google for an election-season discussion with senior vice president of corporate development David Drummond. In response to his question about antitrust enforcement and the tech industry, Harris cautioned against being “shortsighted” and said that “we have to allow these businesses to develop and grow.”
Harris assured Drummond that she understood how important the technology sector was to bringing California back from “the verge of bankruptcy.”
“We can’t stand in the way of business growth and development,” she said.
Drummond asked Harris about her views on data privacy. She responded that a “balance” had to be struck. She pivoted to the safety of children using technology, and suggested the burden for protecting children online should fall on teachers and parents.
“One of the issues that has come up that is kind of a high-profile issue on this point relates to children and their use of technology in a way that may harm them,” Harris explained. “So I would suggest to you, based on the work that I’ve done, that the best way to deal with that is prevention, which means educating the parents and teachers and the community that is raising that child to understand that technology in a way that they can teach the child what we otherwise teach children when we cross the street.”
Later, Harris said she planned on bringing tech giants into her attorney general’s office in an advisory role and was looking forward to the ways those companies could “upgrade” her administration on technology issues.
“I want these relationships, and I want to cultivate them because I want you to be an advisory group,” she said. “I want to be able to say, ‘Look guys, this is what I’ve got; tell me what do you see as the way that we get to where we need to be? What does the design look like?’”
Harris concluded: “We’re family.”
Three years later, during an appearance at the Viewpoint School, Harris lauded the way tech had disrupted traditional industries.
“I will tell you, the technology you’re all using every day — it’s a game changer,” she said. “I think of it in the context of: there was the creation of fire, the wheel, electricity, technology. It is changing business models.”
Harris went on to enthusiastically single out Airbnb and Uber — two companies whose industry disruption involved skirting regulations imposed on their traditional hotel and taxi competitors. Two years after Harris’s Viewpoint speech, Uber would be embroiled in an antitrust lawsuit over alleged price-fixing.
A recent HuffPost article noted that Harris’s office had failed to act to prevent Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014. She also chose to work with tech giants behind closed doors on issues like revenge porn rather than pursuing legal action against them.
HuffPost procured 1,400 pages of emails which revealed how Harris’s relationships with tech giants had been mutually beneficial. For example, she’d participated in a promotional for Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book about women in power, Lean In, which increased her national profile. Sandberg would also become a donor to her 2016 Senate campaign. All told, that year, Harris raked in $214,000 in contributions from the industry.
A Favorite Candidate of Tech Giants During the 2020 Campaign
During her 2020 presidential run, Harris was a favorite of Big Tech, taking large sums from lobbyists for companies like Uber and Facebook. Donors from Apple, Amazon, and Google’s parent company Alphabet were collectively among her top contributors.
Harris’s position on the size of tech giants did not substantially change during the campaign.
When she was asked by the New York Times in January 2019 if companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google should be broken up, Harris responded: “I believe that the tech companies have got to be regulated in a way that we can ensure and the American consumer can be certain that their privacy is not being compromised.” Pressed by the interviewer to respond directly about the size of the companies, Harris continued to sidestep.
“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 and that it is not being made for them,” she said.
By May 2019, Harris was suggesting that perhaps Facebook should be broken up, following a push by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), but she notably did not endorse Warren’s antitrust plan when asked about it on a debate stage in October. Harris avoided the question entirely, changing the focus to Twitter’s refusal to ban Donald Trump’s account. When Warren finally did introduce legislation cracking down on mega-mergers in April, Harris did not sign on as a cosponsor.
When Harris has challenged the tech industry, the plans have not involved antitrust action. Notably, the senator voted for legislation that removed the immunity reserved for online platforms that hosted content related to sex trafficking. The bill, which became law in 2018, was opposed by internet advocacy groups and sex workers on the grounds that it would result in platforms shutting down and force women back on the streets.