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SAN FRANCISCO — Sen. Bernie Sanders’s narrow victory in New Hampshire means there will be even more attention paid to his calls to rein in corporate power and billionaire advantages in what he decries as a rigged system.
And his message should worry Silicon Valley elites.
The senator from Vermont’s top target in the industry is already going on the defensive: Amazon spokesman Jay Carney wrote an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this week titled “Why Bernie Sanders Praised Amazon.” The e-commerce giant’s decision to respond to Sanders’s long-running criticisms shows they’re taking the senator’s threats more seriously as Sanders becomes the putative front-runner in the Democratic primary.
Carney recounted a call he had with the self-described Democratic socialist shortly after the company hiked its minimum wage for workers to $15 per hour following intense public pressure. Carney urged critics to acknowledge: “When it comes to creating jobs, raising wages, providing benefits and training employees for higher-paying jobs, Amazon is doing many good things — for the economy, and for American workers.” (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Some tech investors, too, are concerned about Sanders’s economic message, though they’ve largely been quiet publicly even as he touts policies such a wealth tax. Hunter Walk, a partner at Homebrew has supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg per campaign finance records, said he has his doubts about Sanders.
“From an economic point of view, I’m a believer in fair markets with a citizen safety net strung below including health care, job training and such. Sanders has seemed to suggest that he’s skeptical of market-based economies in general, so that concerns me.”
Here are some of Sanders’s tech-specific policy positions that could spell trouble for the industry:
— The senator would “absolutely” try to break up Big Tech.
Sanders said at a Washington Post Live event earlier this year that Facebook has “incredible power over the economy, over the political life of this country in a very dangerous sense.” He also said Amazon is “moving very rapidly to be a monopoly.”
“I think we need vigorous antitrust legislation in this country because you are seeing — you name the area, whether it’s pharmaceuticals, whether it is Wall Street, whether it is high tech — fewer and fewer gigantic corporation owning those sectors.”
He also said he would appoint an attorney general who “would break up these huge corporations.”
— Sanders is homing in on the industry’s prized legal shield.
Sanders has signaled he would take a close look at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which grants tech companies legal immunity for the content people post on their platforms. He told Vox.com the companies “should not be shielded from responsibility when they knowingly allow content on their platforms that promotes and facilitates violence.” He indicated it’s time to reevaluate the provision to address the proliferation of hate speech online.
“Section 230 was written well before the current era of online communities, expression, and technological development, so [I] will work with experts and advocates to ensure that these large, profitable corporations are held responsible when dangerous activity occurs on their watch, while protecting the fundamental right of free speech in this country and making sure right-wing groups don’t abuse regulation to advance their agenda.”
— He’s scrutinizing working conditions at major e-commerce companies such as Amazon.
Sanders has long advocated for better treatment of workers at these companies, and he was among a group of senators who recently wrote a letter to Bezos criticizing the e-commerce giant’s safety record as “dismal.” The letter cited recent media reports chronicling workplace injuries.
“We urge you to overhaul this profit-at-all-costs culture and take the immediate steps identified in this letter to ensure Amazon’s managers treat your workers fairly and do not require them to risk their own health and safety in the course of doing their jobs,” the senators wrote.
— Sanders brings a critical eye to tech companies’ tax payments.
The senator has criticized Amazon and Netflix for paying $0 in taxes in 2018 under President Trump’s tax law. But more moderate Democrats, including former vice president Joe Biden, have embraced this criticism on the campaign trail.
Amazon has pushed back, noting that it pays every penny it owes and that the problem is with the law, not the company itself.
— The senator is challenging the gig economy, supporting a law that could force companies to reclassify their contractors.
Sanders supported AB5, a California law that seeks to compel companies like Uber, Lyft and Postmates to treat workers who meet certain requirements as employees. The senator said gig economy workers are “being denied basic workplace protections and a fighting chance to obtain higher wages.” He accused employers of deliberately misclassifying workers as contractors so they didn’t have to comply with basic labor protections.
“A slick app may enrich tech companies and their CEOs, but that doesn’t mean those CEOs have a right to rip off their employees,” Sanders wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed last year.
Sanders continues to enjoy some financial support among rank-and-file Silicon Valley employees. Vox.com reports he’s raising more money from employees at large tech companies than any other 2020 presidential candidate. Meanwhile, many of the high-level, executive donors are throwing their support behind Buttigieg.
Even though some Silicon Valley people concerned about Sanders’s economic policies, they view him as a better alternative to Trump. “I’m going to fall in line and enthusiastically support whomever emerges as the Democratic nominee,” Walk said.
Sanders’s “genuine concern for citizens, even if it involves policy approaches I might not always agree with, is still unquestionably better than Trump’s bigoted kleptocracy,” Walk added.
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang dropped out of the presidential race after a disappointing showing in New Hampshire last night, my colleagues David Weigel and Amy B Wang reported. Yang’s campaign emphasized the threat of automation to American jobs, and he consistently put a spotlight on emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, on the debate stage.
Yang’s signature policy was a form of a monthly $1,000 “Freedom Dividend,” a proposal based on the concept of Universal Basic Income that some Silicon Valley figures have embraced. Yang garnered support from tech industry titans such as Tesla chief executive Elon Musk and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey.
Reddit co-founder and investor Alexis Ohanian, a proponent of UBI, tweeted that Yang had “a good run.”
💪 a good run. Get this guy in the cabinet of whoever will be POTUS. https://t.co/u8xjCcSdZd
— Alexis Ohanian Sr. 🚀 (@alexisohanian) February 12, 2020
The entrepreneur’s unlikely run was bolstered by a strong online following of supporters, who took on the moniker #YangGang. Yang has yet to endorse another candidate.
NIBBLES: The Federal Trade Commission announced it will review past acquisitions by Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft to examine whether they may have violated antitrust laws, my colleague Tony Romm reported. The new effort will force the companies to hand over a trove of information about how they have gobbled up rivals over the past decade and what data they gained from the deals.
Records about the acquisitions, many of which were below the threshold that merits government inspection, could guide the FTC’s thinking as it evaluates concerns about anti-competitive practices in the technology industry.
“All of our options are on the table,” FTC Chairman Joseph J. Simons said yesterday. That could include “unwinding” anti-competitive mergers and acquisitions. It could also spark investigations, shape tougher punishments or prompt the commission to seek greater enforcement powers from Congress, Tony reports.
Justice Department officials have also launched a wide-ranging probe into dominant tech companies. Officials will be in Palo Alto, Calif., today for an antitrust workshop with venture capitalists. The House antitrust subcommittee is also probing the competitive practices of tech companies.
BYTES: The Chinese telecommunications company Huawei covertly maintained access to mobile phone networks through “backdoors” meant exclusively for law enforcement, U.S. officials say, according to Bojan Pancevski at the Wall Street Journal. That’s the most serious and specific charge U.S. officials have leveled against the Chinese company, which they’re trying to restrict from the next generation of super-fast wireless networks known as 5G.
Officials declined to say whether the United States observed Huawei using this access, but they said classified intelligence shows it has had the capability to do so since at least 2009. The company also failed to disclose that access to customers or to intelligence services in nations where it operates, officials told Bojan.
“We have evidence that Huawei has the capability secretly to access sensitive and personal information in systems it maintains and sells around the world,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien said.
Huawei denied the story, saying that it “has never and will never do anything that would compromise or endanger the security of networks and data of its clients.”
Washington privately shopped the classified intelligence to allies for months as it ramped up efforts to convince other nations to ban Huawei from their 5G networks.
Some privacy advocates, meanwhile, pointed to the story as evidence that law enforcement backdoors into technology can be exploited far too easily by criminals or other nations — a dig at the Justice Department, which is pushing for similar special access to encrypted communications.
Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
Gee, maybe back doors for law enforcement aren’t a good idea. https://t.co/jpEiMKCjLy
— Eva (@evacide) February 11, 2020
— Social media companies are getting more aggressive at taking down Iran-backed information operations aimed at swaying public opinion in the United States and abroad. Now it’s the U.S. government’s turn to step up, says a new report out today.
“In January 2017, the Official of the National Director of Intelligence attributed a significant foreign influence operation to Russia. In nearly three years since, dozens more disinformation campaigns have been publicly identified and attributed — but only by corporations like Facebook, Google, and Twitter,” the report’s authors write. “U.S. intelligence services should work with social media companies to attribute future foreign influence operations.”
The report comes as Facebook and Twitter announced today that they took down a number of accounts linked to Iran, my colleague Tony Romm reports.
The report urges the Department of Homeland Security to create an intergovernmental agency that would attribute and publicize foreign influence operations. It’s the kind of naming-and-shaming that American intelligence agencies have shied away from when it comes to cyberattacks. But the transparency could help demystify Iran’s ongoing information warfare campaign against the United States, which has taken on new meaning in a time of extreme political tensions between the United States and Iran.
“This U.S. government has struggled profoundly to come up with a coordinated response to these threats,” Emerson T. Brooking, resident fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council and co-author of the report, told our researcher Tonya Riley. “The stakes are too high for these kinds of attributions to be left to the private sector alone.”
— More news from the public sector:
Trustbusting advocates like Sarah Miller, who target corporate power, have finally found themselves at the center of the political conversation.
The New York Times
— Twitter released its plan to tackle misinformation about the 2020 Census today, months after lawmakers wrote to the social media giant asking it to elaborate on how it would address the issue. Twitter already bans misleading information about civic events, including the census and elections. It’s now taking those efforts a step further with a new tool that prompts users searching for information on the census with a link to the official census site.
Users can also use a reporting feature the company introduced last month to streamline the reporting of election misinformation to flag census misinformation.
— More news from the private sector:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
— Coming up:
- The Department of Justice will hold a public workshop in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 19, 2020, titled “Section 230 – Nurturing Innovation or Fostering Unaccountability”
- Mobile World Congress takes place Feb. 24 to 27 in Barcelona.
The Washington Post’s Geoffrey A. Fowler got a sneak peek of the newest (and very expensive) Samsung flagship smartphones, the Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20 Plus and Galaxy S20 Ultra.