When Kamala Harris, then San Francisco’s district attorney, was running to become California’s attorney general in 2010, she did not hide her excitement about speaking at Google’s Silicon Valley campus.
“I’ve been wanting to come to the Google campus for a year and a half,” she said. “I’ve been wanting to come because I want these relationships and I want to cultivate them.”
For Harris, a Bay Area politician, connections to tech have been essential and perhaps inescapable. In past campaigns — her two elections to be attorney general, her successful run for the Senate and her failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination — she relied on Silicon Valley’s tech elite for donations. And her network of family, friends and former political aides has fanned throughout the tech world.
Those close industry ties have coincided with a largely hands-off approach to companies that have come under increasing scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers around the world. As California’s attorney general, critics say, Harris did little to curb the power of tech giants as they gobbled up rivals and muscled into new industries. As a senator, consumer advocacy groups said, she has often moved in lock step with tech interests.
Now that she is the running mate to Joe Biden, tech industry critics worry that a Biden administration with Harris would mean a return to the cozy relationship that Silicon Valley enjoyed with the White House under President Barack Obama.
Although vice presidents rarely set policy, as a former state attorney general, Harris is expected to have a say in Biden’s political appointments at the Justice Department, including officials who oversee antitrust enforcement. She could also have a significant influence on tech policy in a Biden administration, since Biden has largely focused on other issues.
“This is good news” for tech companies, said Hal Singer, an economist who specializes in antitrust and a managing director at Econ One, a consulting firm. “They probably feel like they have one of their own and that at the margin this is going to help push back against any reform.”
A spokeswoman for Harris declined to comment for this article.
Silicon Valley’s Democratic power brokers have been enthusiastic backers of Harris. In her first statewide campaign, she raised 36% more money than her Republican opponent with the help of large donations from prominent tech investors like billionaire John Doerr, who was an early investor in Google, and Ron Conway, a venture capitalist who is active in Democratic politics.
In her reelection bid, donations poured in from big players in tech, like Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer; Jony Ive, Apple’s former top design executive, and Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce.
She also hobnobbed with Silicon Valley heavyweights. Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs and an influential philanthropist, hosted a fundraiser for Harris in the backyard of her Palo Alto home in 2013. That same year, Harris attended the lavish wedding of Sean Parker, an early Facebook executive.
In addition, her family, friends, and former staff members are part of the revolving door between government and the tech industry.
Lartease Tiffith left his position as a senior counsel in Harris’ Senate office in late 2018 and became an in-house lobbyist for Amazon, focusing on privacy and security issues. Rebecca Prozan, who ran Harris’ first campaign for district attorney in San Francisco, is a top government affairs official for Google in California. Tony West, Harris’ brother-in-law and a former Justice Department official, is the chief legal officer for Uber.
“There are familial connections and a level of mutual affection with Silicon Valley that goes above and beyond the fact that she is a San Francisco politician,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a left-leaning watchdog group that has criticized Harris’ ties to Big Tech and other corporate interests.
A decade ago, the perception of the tech industry was very different. It was a bright spot in an economy still recovering from the financial crisis. A campaign stop at the Google campus helped politicians raise their profile — and perhaps, a little money — while benefiting from an association with a company recognized as an engine of innovation.
Addressing Google’s employees in 2010, Harris presented herself not as a potential foe with the power to rein in Google but as a pragmatic ally who could speak the language of the tech industry. She said she was an innovator, seeking to disrupt the status quo in government.
Harris danced around sensitive issues. With online privacy, she said, she wanted to strike a balance between what’s good for business and protecting consumers. When asked about antitrust enforcement, she said it was important not to be shortsighted. A state on the verge of bankruptcy, as California was then, “cannot stand in the way of business growth and development,” she said.
That month, David Drummond, then Google’s top lawyer, personally donated $6,500, the maximum allowed at the time, to her campaign. Google kicked in another $6,500. Backed by tech money, Harris eked out a victory in one of the closest statewide races in California history, setting her career on the trajectory that has catapulted her to being the first Black woman on the presidential ticket of a major political party.
Harris rarely challenged the major tech companies after she became California’s attorney general.
Jamie Court, president of the California-based Consumer Watchdog, said his group lobbied Harris in 2011 to support legislation that would force companies to stop monitoring the online activity of users if they clearly stated that they did not want to be tracked. She refused to sponsor the bill or support it, he said.
Two years later, Harris sponsored — and California enacted — a less stringent law, requiring companies to post in privacy policies whether they abide by do-not-track requests and what personally identifiable information they collect.
“She presided over this era of great consolidation and power in the hands of these tech giants and she didn’t do a thing,” Court said.
But Harris’ supporters said that when she did act, her familiarity with the technology industry helped her prod the companies into action. Danielle Keats Citron, a law professor at Boston University, said she saw that firsthand when she worked with Harris in early 2015 to fight so-called revenge pornography — a term for posting explicit images or videos of a person without that person’s permission.
Harris pressured the companies to act without threatening legal action by calling a round table with top executives and policy advocates. Twitter and Reddit started to ban such photos and videos, and then Google agreed to remove explicit pictures from search results if a victim had made a request to do so.
“She was not afraid to take them on,” said Citron, who thinks the companies were more attentive because she “was not some gadfly.”
When Harris arrived on Capitol Hill in 2017, activists expected her to be a vocal supporter of a Senate bill called SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, reducing the immunity protection that shielded companies like Backpage.com, a major classified advertising website that was repeatedly accused of enabling the sex trafficking of minors.
The Internet Association, a trade group representing internet companies, opposed key parts of the bill out of concern that it would weaken the liability protections for big online sites. Harris eventually signed onto the bill, after it was watered down, and the same day the Internet Association gave its stamp of approval.
Citron, who advised Harris in the Senate about the bill, said Harris had initially been reluctant because of flaws in the legislation. But her hesitance was a letdown to groups that had been relying on her early support.
“Her absence as a vocal advocate on behalf of SESTA was glaring and it’s very suspect,” said Lisa Thompson, who was in charge of policy for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, in 2019.
Supporters of tough regulations governing autonomous vehicles felt similarly let down by Harris. As attorney general in California, she threatened legal action against Uber unless the company removed its driverless cars from San Francisco roads. Activists hoped she would be a champion on Capitol Hill for autonomous car regulation.
In 2017, proposed legislation called the AV Start Act worried safety groups, because a provision establishing federal regulations for autonomous vehicles that would have preempted the tougher rules already in place in California. The bill failed, and Harris’ office stayed out of the debate, despite repeated requests from safety groups for her involvement, said Joan Claybrook, a consumer activist.
“They weren’t cooperative and we never knew why,” said Claybrook, who was working with the organization Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
On the campaign trail, Biden has been critical of major technology companies. In a December interview with the editorial board of The New York Times, he attacked Facebook as “totally irresponsible” for its handling of misinformation and said liability protection for social media companies from what users post to their sites should be revoked.
But a crackdown on Big Tech is not a public pillar of his agenda. Of the 46 policy papers listed on the campaign’s website, none directly address his plan for the industry. And employees and allies of the major technology companies are prominent within the nearly 700-person committee advising the campaign on tech policy.
When progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called for a breakup of big tech companies during a debate in October, Harris took a more moderate stance. She called for action from the Justice Department.
“We need a president who has the guts to appoint an attorney general who will take on these huge monopolies,” Harris said.