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Op-Ed | Sludge | July 21, 2020

Kamala Harris' Deep History Of Letting Facebook Off The Hook


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Senator Kamala Harris was heralded as a possible president from the day she arrived in Washington. The pundits and consultants of the Democratic establishment loved her youth, clear intelligence, and charisma. She was a prosecutor, and she wanted you to know it.

Yet the 2020 primary did not play out as well as Harris and her allies expected. Indeed, Harris’ campaign ended in 2019. Harris attracted considerable pushback from the left for her aggressive policing policies in the Golden State, and she never really caught on with enough moderate Democratic voters to surmount that. 

But now, Harris is in heavy consideration for a senior job in the would-be Biden administration—most likely, either vice president or attorney general. In either position, she’d have significant power over top executive branch priorities, including the ongoing antitrust investigations into the Big Tech companies from her home state of California. And one does not often rise through California politics at Harris’ speed without making some concerning friends in Silicon Valley.

HuffPost’s Zach Carter revealed on Friday that Harris had a close relationship with Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Sandberg as California attorney general. Harris participated in the marketing campaign for Sandberg’s paen to capitalistic feminism Lean In, even though at the time Harris was California’s law enforcement official most principally responsible for overseeing Facebook. When Harris cracked down on revenge porn—an extremely admirable signature issue—she focused her legal cases on publishers of this painful material, but never the platforms without which it cannot spread. This meant that Facebook and other big platforms never faced consequences, or even any incentives to take the issue seriously. When the platforms’ role became simply too clear to ignore any longer, according to Carter, Harris held one meeting with company representatives at her office, then appeared next to Sandberg at a Facebook-sponsored lecture six days later. 

Carter’s reporting on Harris’ private relationship with Sandberg complements the public record (or lack thereof) of how Harris treated Big Tech as California attorney general. It was clear by the mid-2010s that Facebook was after monopolistic power in social media. Its acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram, perhaps the two most obviously anti-competitive mergers in the sector’s history, both went unchallenged on Harris’ watch. Google’s top lobbyist for the State of California is Rebecca Prozan, who managed Harris’ first bid for District Attorney. Notably, Harris won that race by embracing tough-on-crime politics (that is, tough on the mothers of truant children, not on the crimes committed by big banks and mortgage lenders) against an incumbent who had pioneered rehabilitative justice initiatives, a fact that mysteriously disappeared from Harris’ Wikipedia page recently.

Harris’ entanglement with Silicon Valley is not just a relic of the past, however. The Revolving Door Project’s analysis of the 2020 primary candidates’ campaign contributions found that the tech sector was among the Harris campaign’s most generous sources for high-dollar donations. Facebook lobbyists William Castleberry and Michael Matthews maxed out donations to the Harris campaign, as did Google lobbyists Ross LaJeunesse and Bonita Stewart, top Amazon lobbyist Jay Carney, and Apple’s Lisa Jackson, who oversees Apple lobbyists like the one helping to pick Biden’s running mate. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman—who also funded Acronym, the shadowy PAC behind the Iowa caucus disaster which is now running a website disguised as a newsroom that prints information favorable to centrist Democrats—was one of Harris’ bundlers, meaning he helped her raise at least $25,000. In all, 27% of Harris’ donors employed by the cross-section of influential industries Revolving Door Project studied were from the tech sector, a higher percentage than any other major candidate, including Silicon Valley darling Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg had Harris beat on number of tech donors, according to Revolving Door Project), which may in part account for her early exit from the race—she’d been counting on the Big Tech bundlers Buttigieg scooped up.

In May, I wrote that these financial ties meant Harris would need to prove to progressives that she could be trusted to spearhead the then-nascent antitrust investigations into Big Tech. On the campaign trail, after all, she mostly dodged questions about technology policy, ultimately settling on a promise to ensure that “privacy is something that is intact,” whatever that means. As Sally Hubbard of the Open Markets Institute told Carter, better privacy standards alone can’t fix the root problems with Facebook, which she described as “its business model and the fact that it’s a monopoly power.” An antitrust investigation carries the promise of targeting the latter. 

Since May, Harris has remained tight-lipped about the investigations into her home state titans. And make no mistake: this isn’t a purely theoretical question. On July 27, the CEOs of all four companies facing antitrust inquiries will be publicly testifying before the House Judiciary Committee. Right around when Biden is picking his vice president, Silicon Valley is facing its most dire challenge in Washington D.C. ever. 
Challenging Silicon Valley enjoys tremendous support among the Democratic base, but it has terrified Facebook and others into flooding D.C. with lobbyists, donations to think tanks, and advertising dollars. So where will Harris come down—on the side of the people, or on the side of the (ahem) machine?


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