President-elect Joe Biden may have spent eight years in an administration that doted on the tech industry, but that long honeymoon, punctuated by four years of Trump, looks to be over.
Tech is on notice in 2020. The Russian interference saga of the 2016 election opened the floodgates for social media’s ills. The subsequent years unleashed dangerous torrents of homegrown extremism and misinformation that either disillusioned or radicalized regular people. A cluster of tech's biggest data brokers further consolidated power, buying up any would-be competitor they stumbled across and steamrolling everything else. Things got so bad that Republicans and Democrats, in uncanny agreement, are both pushing plans to regulate tech.
Suddenly, allowing the world’s information merchants to grow, unmolested, into towering ad-fed behemoths over the last decade looked like a huge mistake. And that’s where we are today.
Biden and big tech
Biden didn’t make attacking tech a cornerstone of his campaign and mostly avoided weighing in on tech issues, even as Elizabeth Warren stirred the big tech backlash into the campaign conversation. His attitude toward the tech industry at large is a bit mysterious, but there are some things we do know.
The president-elect is expected to keep the Trump administration’s antitrust case against Google on track, potentially even opening additional cases into Facebook, Amazon and Apple. But his campaign also leaned on former Google CEO Eric Schmidt for early fundraising, so the relationship to Google looks a bit more complex than the Biden team’s open contempt for a company like Facebook.
As Biden picked up the nomination and the months wore on, it became clear that Mark Zuckerberg’s chumminess with Trump's White House was unlikely to continue into a Biden administration. By September, the Biden campaign had penned a scathing letter to Mark Zuckerberg denouncing Facebook as the “foremost propagator” of election disinformation, and that frustration doesn’t seem to have dissipated. His deputy communications director recently criticized Facebook for “shredding” the fabric of democracy. It appears that Facebook could come to regret the many decisions it's made to stay in the Trump administration's good graces over the last four years.
Still, it’s not doom and gloom for all tech — big tech isn’t everything. There are plenty of potential bright spots, from Biden’s climate plans (lack of Senate control notwithstanding), which could crack open a whole new industry and shower it in federal dollars, to his intention to revitalize the nation’s infrastructure, from telecommunications and transportation to energy-efficient housing.
And antitrust legislation, usually framed as an existential threat to “tech” broadly, actually stands to benefit the startup scene, where the largest tech companies have walled off many paths to innovation with years of anti-competitive behavior. If Congress, states and/or the federal government put together meaningful regulation, it could open up interesting paths for startups that otherwise would have been bought and subsumed or straight-up shuttered by one of tech's core mega-companies.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is another wildcard. Hailing from tech’s backyard, Harris brings a distinctly Bay Area vibe to the office. Most interesting is Harris's brother-in-law Tony West. West is Uber's chief legal officer and played a prominent role in pushing for California's Proposition 22, which absolved gig economy companies like Lyft and Uber from the need to grant their workers benefits afforded to full-time employees. Standing with organized labor, Harris landed on the other side of the issue.
The extent of her relationships in the tech world isn't totally clear, but she apparently has a friendly relationship with Sheryl Sandberg, who was a frontrunner for a Treasury or Commerce position four years ago in the advent of a Hillary Clinton win. Needless to say, that's not in the cards this time around.
The Biden administration will also have all kinds of quiet ties to power players in the tech world, many of whom served in the Obama years and then made a beeline for Silicon Valley. Apple's Lisa Jackson, formerly of Obama's Environmental Protection Agency, and Jay Carney, a former Obama spokesman who sits comfortably as SVP of global corporate affairs at Amazon, are two examples there.
Transition names from tech
The Biden administration’s transition list is generously peppered with names from the tech industry, though some of them are likely grandfathered in from the Obama era rather than pulled directly for their more recent industry experience. The list named Matt Olsen, Uber's chief trust and security officer, for his prior experience in the intel community under Obama rather than his ridesharing industry insights, for example.
The list doesn’t include any names fresh from Facebook or Google, but it does include four members from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and one from Eric Schmidt’s philanthropic project Schmidt Futures. The list also suggests a degree of continuity with the Obama era, with the inclusion of Aneesh Chopra, the first U.S. CTO, and Nicole Wong, a former deputy chief technology officer under Obama who previously worked at Twitter and Google. The transition also includes a smattering of names that served in the digital services agency 18F and some from the USDS, which borrows talent from the tech world to solve public problems.
Other names from the tech world include Airbnb’s Divya Kumaraiah and Clare Gallagher, Lyft’s Brandon Belford, Arthur Plews of Stripe, Dell CTO Ann Dunkin and quite a few more. These transition figures will help the administration fill the many open slots in a new government, but they're less telling than who gets called to the cabinet.
Tech in the cabinet?
Beyond reading the tea leaves of the transition team and Biden’s previous statements here and there, we’re in for a wait. The administration’s picks for its cabinets will say a lot about its priorities, but for now we’re mostly left with the rumor mill.
What does the rumor mill suggest? Meg Whitman, the former HP and eBay CEO most recently at the helm of failed short-form streaming platform Quibi, keeps coming up as a symbolic across-the-aisle pick for the Commerce Department, though Quibi’s spectacular dive probably doesn’t bode well for her chances.
Eric Schmidt’s name has bubbled up to lead some kind of White House tech task force, but that seems ill-fated considering the federal antitrust case against Google and the broader legislative appetite for doing something about big tech. But Alphabet board member Roger Ferguson, whose name has been floating around for Treasury Secretary, just stepped down from his current position at a finance firm, kicking up more speculation.
Seth Harris, who served in Obama’s Labor Department, made at least one list suggesting he could land a cabinet position. Harris, who is already involved in the Biden transition, also has the controversial distinction of proposing a “new legal category” of worker “for those who occupy the gray area between employees and independent contractors.” Lyft apparently cited his paper specifically after Prop 22 passed. With labor a hot issue in general right now — and Bernie Sanders himself potentially in the running for the same role — Harris would likely ignite a firestorm of controversy among labor activists if appointed to helm the department.
On the other side of the coin, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra could be considered for a cabinet-level role in the Department of Justice. Becerra isn’t from the tech world, but as California’s AG he’s been stationed there and his department currently has its own antitrust case against Google simmering. In a recent interview with Bloomberg about antitrust issues under the Biden administration, Becerra denounced “behemoths” in the tech industry that stifle innovation, noting that state AGs have “taken the lead” on pressing tech companies on anti-competitive behavior.
“At the end of the day we all want competition, right?” Becerra said. “But here’s the thing, competition is essential if you want innovation.” Becerra, who succeeded Vice President-elect Kamala Harris when she left the Attorney General's office for Congress, could also again follow in her footsteps, filling the vacant seat she will leave in the Senate come January.
All told, we're seeing some familiar names in the mix, but 2020 isn't 2008. Tech companies that emerged as golden children over the last 10 years are radioactive now. Regulation looms on the horizon in every direction. Whatever policy priorities emerge out of the Biden administration, Obama's technocratic gilded age is over and we're in for something new.