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Big Tech is expecting to have a friend in the White House, but there are 3 areas it should expect pushback from Vice President-elect Kamala Harris

  • Kamala Harris' close ties to Big Tech in the past have some believing she'll go easy on companies like Google and Facebook.
  • But columnist Jason Aten argues she'll likely be much more involved when it comes to protecting user privacy and content moderation.
  • She's questioned how much Facebook values trust and transparency during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, asked Twitter to moderate Trump's tweets, and called for Facebook to be broken up.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is no stranger to Silicon Valley. Before she was the senator from California, she was the state's attorney general. Before that, she was district attorney in San Francisco. When she heads to the White House in January, she will do so with more experience with Big Tech than probably anyone else ever elected to national office.

For many, at least inside Silicon Valley, that probably seems like good news. Not only is she not a stranger, in many cases she's been a friend. Take Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, whom Harris helped to promote her book, "Lean In." And Sandberg supported Harris' run for attorney general over Facebook's former Chief Privacy Officer, Chris Kelly, who competed against her in the primary. 

In addition, Harris' brother-in-law is also a top lawyer at Uber, though she supported California's AB 5, which targeted ridesharing apps, forcing them to reclassify drivers as employees and not independent contractors. Voters in the state recently passed Proposition 22 that removed delivery and rideshare apps from that regulation.

Despite her knowledge of the tech industry, Harris was less vocal on the campaign trail about issues like antitrust or foreign profit repatriation than some of her primary opponents, most notably Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. And, as a senator, she hasn't taken defined positions on many of those issues either.

As a result, Harris's cozy relationship with the tech industry has made some industry critics concerned that a Biden-Harris administration may go too easy on Big Tech. That view is compounded by the fact that the previous democratic administration, for which Joe Biden was the vice president, was known as being particularly friendly with Big Tech. 

Still, I think it's a little too simplistic to assume that this administration will be easy for tech companies just because Harris is the VP.

First, it's important to acknowledge that the vice president isn't ultimately responsible for setting the agenda, whether on industry regulation or otherwise. Sure, in some cases vice presidents have taken a more public role on a particular subject, like Joe Biden heading up President Barack Obama's national effort to end cancer. Even then, however, it's always in support of the President's agenda.

On that front, Joe Biden has already come out in favor of revoking immunity for internet platforms like Facebook for the content posted by users, and for more tech regulation in general. Plus, Biden will face intense pressure from his party to rein in Big Tech on a range of fronts, either through signing legislation or through the Department of Justice.   

On the latter front, it's entirely reasonable to expect that her experience as the top law-enforcement official in the largest state will make Harris an influential voice when it comes to, say, who gets picked for key roles at the Justice Department. That would most certainly have an effect on what the tech industry can expect in terms of regulation.

With that in mind, there are three areas I think we can expect to see Harris' influence in the next administration's stance toward the tech industry.

Privacy

When The New York Times asked then-Presidential candidate Harris if she believed tech companies should be broken up, her answer was, "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 now being made for them."

It wasn't the first time she made clear that she thinks tech companies should do more to protect the information of their users. In 2018, Harris made headlines with her questioning of Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg over the Cambridge Analytica scandal. 

"I have to tell you, I'm concerned about how much Facebook values trust and transparency," Harris told Zuckerberg as she questioned whether Zuckerberg had been involved in the decision not to initially notify users of the sale of their personal information. 

Content moderation

One of the only unifying threads in Washington, DC, right now is that both sides believe that something should be done about Section 230, the law that provides websites with the ability to moderate content without being held liable for what users post on their site. The only difference is what each side thinks should be done.

Harris has come down firmly on the side of pushing platforms to moderate more content. In 2019, she wrote a letter to Twitter's CEO, Jack Dorsey, asking him to ban President Trump's Twitter account. She also publicly called for action in a Tweet of her own:

Harris, for her part, hasn't been as outspoken against Section 230 as other Democratic or Republican lawmaker. Still, she hasn't shied away from criticizing the CEOs of social media platforms for what she sees as insufficient moderation practices.

Antitrust

While it was the Trump Administration that filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, there are plenty of potential targets under a Biden administration. At the top of that list is Facebook, which, for various reasons, faces criticism from both sides of the aisle. 

For example, after the House Antitrust Subcommittee interviewed the CEOs of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, Chairman David Cicilline said that Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram were "part of a play to both buy a competitor and maintain his monopoly power, or dominance. That's classic monopoly behavior."

In addition to Harris' earlier criticism of how Facebook handled user privacy and trust, in a 2019 interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, she called for Facebook to be broken up, saying it is "essentially a utility that has gone unregulated." If that's the case, Big Tech could be in for a slightly bumpier next four years than it'd hoped for.

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This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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