The Democratic Party’s love affair with Silicon Valley is officially over.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren made that clear when she threw the first punch at Big Tech Tuesday night, and she was joined by just about every other Democrat onstage.
“I’m not willing to give up and let a handful of monopolists dominate our economy and democracy,” Warren said. “It’s time to fight back.”
The attacks showed growing mistrust of Silicon Valley’s command over information and economic power that would have been unthinkable before Facebook emerged as a key tool of foreign influence in the 2016 election. But even if Tuesday night’s debate showed Democrats in lockstep in their criticism of Big Tech, they differ wildly on how to respond — and even what problems they’re trying to solve.
Warren has been trumpeting her plan to break up huge tech platforms in recent months and promised to return any donation over $200 from Silicon Valley executives. On Tuesday, she singled out Amazon for using its vast trove of consumer data to boost its own products at the expense of competitors.
“Look, you get to be the umpire in the baseball game, or you get to have a team,” she said. “But you don't get to do both at the same time.”
The entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has built a dedicated online following, allowed that there are “excesses in technology” and warned of how screen time will affect children. But he disagreed with Warren’s breakup plan. Instead, he said, the federal government should essentially tax Big Tech for its use of our personal data.
“What we have to do is we have to hone in on the specific problems we're trying to solve and use 21st century solutions for 21st century problems,” he said. “Using a 20th century antitrust framework will not work.”
That existing framework revolves around whether companies use their size to jack up prices or otherwise harm consumers. Sen. Bernie Sanders alluded to that standard Tuesday in railing against a “rigged economy” controlled by a small group of elites.
“We need a president who has the guts to appoint an attorney general who will take on these huge monopolies, protect small business, and protect consumers by ending the price fixing that we see every day,” he said.
But companies like Facebook and Google offer free services. That’s left the American public split on new regulations for Big Tech, according to public opinion polls, though support for tougher rules appears to be growing.
Still, Democrats like Sen. Amy Klobuchar tread lightly on the topic Tuesday night, framing potential regulation as a “pro-competition issue.” Without naming names, she implied that consolidation in the tech industry could stifle entrepreneurship. Federal regulators, states’ attorneys general, and House Democrats are currently exploring that question in a web of overlapping investigations.
“We are seeing a startup slump in this country,” Klobuchar warned.
Sen. Cory Booker, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke likewise called for an update in antitrust enforcement — without mentioning specifics. Former Vice President Joe Biden, whose campaign has laced into Facebook after it allowed Trump to buy false ads about his son’s business dealings abroad, did not get a chance to respond.
The most bizarre detour came from Sen. Kamala Harris, who pivoted from the question about tech policy into an argument for suspending President Donald Trump from Twitter. Criticizing the company for applying its rules unequally to different users, she repeatedly asked Warren to join her in calling for Trump to get the boot.
“Look, I don't just want to push Donald Trump off Twitter,” Warren replied. “I want to push him out of the White House.”
Cover: Democratic presidential hopeful Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (L) talks to entrepreneur Andrew Yang during a break in the fourth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by The New York Times and CNN at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio on October 15, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)