After helping to vet personnel picks for thousands of political and staff positions, including for roles at the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission, and leading the Justice Department’s antitrust division, Silicon Valley insiders who joined the Biden-Harris transition are moving into key White House posts of their own.
The Obama-Biden administration from 2009-2017 was criticized for its close ties to Big Tech, and veterans of that White House, as well as of technology firms, are finding their way back into Joe Biden’s government. This at a moment when major tech firms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google are under fire for what critics call a politically biased crackdown on conservative speech.
These “reverse revolvers,” officials transitioning from the private sector back into government, should face particular scrutiny, said Jane Chung, a tech policy expert at Public Citizen, a left-leaning public interest group that has urged Biden to avoid a so-called “corporate Cabinet” by spurning appointments from Silicon Valley firms.
Chung said some executives, consultants, lobbyists, and lawyers are inclined to maintain the views of their former employers or clients.
“The way they look at antitrust, for example, might be influenced by the fact that they spent years theoretically advocating against antitrust regulation for these very companies,” she said. “In the worst of cases, our fear is that they explicitly do the bidding of their former employers and clients.”
In the case of the digital media “Big Three,” that could mean crossing the line from content moderation to government censorship. After the deadly pro-Trump riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, Google delisted Twitter competitor Parler from its app store, claiming the alternative social media site didn’t do enough to weed out violent rhetoric on its platform. A slew of companies followed, including Amazon’s web hosting service. “It’s hard to keep track of how many people are telling us that we can no longer do business with them,” Parler CEO John Matze told Reuters. Twitter banned President Trump and banished 70,000 accounts it claimed promoted conspiracy theories favored by many of the rioters. It had earlier frozen the account of the New York Post for reporting on Biden’s son, Hunter. The stories were also suppressed by Facebook, which has also now banned Trump.
As a presidential candidate, Biden said he would consider dismantling Big Tech companies, telling the Associated Press in an interview that this was “something we should take a really hard look at.”
One company that Chung is keeping a close watch on is Facebook, which is fending off a pair of antitrust lawsuits filed in December. Facebook used its ownership of Instagram to stop the newer company from “cannibalizing” its flagship entity, the FTC said in one case. In a separate case filed in October, the Department of Justice sued Google parent Alphabet, accusing the tech juggernaut of maintaining “unlawful monopolies” over internet search and advertising.
Google has used its “monopoly power,” and “billions in monopoly profits,” to secure its position as the default search engine on multiple platforms, former Attorney General William Barr said. The company’s tactics include a multibillion-dollar deal with Apple to ensure it remains the primary search engine on the iPhone.
“The end result is that no one can feasibly challenge Google’s dominance in search and search advertising,” he said.
With Democrats in control of Congress, internet and social media companies are staring down the prospect of more scrutiny over their content moderation policies, a lightning rod for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
A provision in the Communications Decency Act, which Congress passed in 1996, largely allows these companies to regulate themselves and shields them from liability for much of what their users post online. They earn legal immunity by showing good faith efforts to remove content that violates their terms.
While Biden has said that this defamation shield, known as Section 230, “immediately should be revoked,” the president-elect “hasn’t really specified what kind of reform he would want to see,” said Chung.
Trump has fought to repeal Section 230, arguing that tech firms use their power to silence people they don’t like, notably targeting conservatives.
In protest of lawmakers’ failure to repeal the measure, Trump vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act last month. A bill introduced last year by former Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat, and Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, a Republican, would remove Section 230 immunity for companies “who act like publishers,” censoring some users, and profiting from targeted advertising.
Gabbard and Gosar’s Break Up Big Tech Act “would make the click-bait business model that fueled the riots less economically viable,” tweeted Matt Stoller, the author of Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy.
The largest platforms can yield enormous profits from advertising. YouTube generates $15 billion a year in advertising, parent company Alphabet revealed last year.
Jennifer Palmieri, an Obama veteran, noticed a shift in tone as Democrats stand poised to take control of both chambers of Congress. “It has not escaped my attention that the day social media companies decided there actually IS more they could do to police Trump’s destructive behavior was the same day they learned Democrats would chair all the congressional committees that oversee them,” she wrote on Twitter, pointing to Democrats’ two Senate wins in Georgia, which grant them the slimmest possible majority.
Chung said privacy issues tied to Big Tech were also due for a revival, with support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“There is not a single piece of legislation that governs the way that online platforms can collect, handle, or share consumer data,” she added. “Similarly to the issue of antitrust, there’s bipartisan support for more guardrails on what companies can do with consumer data.”
Lawmakers have shared privacy bills over the last two years, “and I think we can expect to see those reintroduced in 2021 now that Democrats, who have largely pushed the privacy conversation, have a few more votes in the Senate,” Chung said.
While Public Citizen won’t comment on specific Biden aides with tech industry ties, an analysis last month by the Washington Examiner identified alumni from top firms joining the transition in droves.
“These companies are very much buying off any enforcement action from the Biden administration — be it aggression on Section 230, more antitrust enforcement, or regulatory action from the FCC,” said Rachel Bovard, senior policy director at the Conservative Partnership Institute. Veterans of Big Tech “are everywhere in the Biden administration, from the Department of Commerce to the departments of State and Defense.”
Big Tech’s reach was evident long before Biden won the general election, as the industry’s billionaire class spent big dollars to secure a Democratic Party victory. And Silicon Valley alumni were quick to join the vetting effort for the incoming teams.
Jeff Zients, the transition co-chair who was then named Biden’s coronavirus czar, is a former Facebook board member. A former top Obama aide, Zients joined Facebook’s board of directors in 2018, before leaving last year “over differences with company leadership over governance and its policies around political discourse,” according to an update on his Wikipedia page spotted by Politico in December. For his work chairing Facebook’s audit and risk oversight committee, Zients was paid $100,000 in cash and more than $300,000 in stock, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
Biden added Twitter’s former public policy director to his transition effort and named Apple’s chief Washington lobbyist to the four-person team that helped to choose his running mate.
Incoming White House Staff Secretary Jessica Hertz also has ties to Facebook. Staff secretary duties can be “highly political,” running the gamut from “which memos go to the president” to deciding “whether a particular staff member’s viewpoint is pertinent,” according to the White House Transition Project’s latest report, which details interviews with staff who’ve held the role.
As an associate general counsel for Facebook’s regulatory team, Hertz handled “a wide range of government inquiries and regulatory investigations,” according to one online biography that has since been removed.
The Revolving Door Project’s Jeff Hauser said that Hertz is ill-served by the timing and nature of her work at Facebook, which she joined in 2018. “People hate to admit mistakes. And if Facebook is a Frankenstein’s monster born out of a series of failures of antitrust enforcement and Congress’s ill-considered drafting of Section 230, then going to work there in 2018 in order to help them fend off regulation was a significant mistake,” Hauser told the Washington Examiner.
“That’s just what Hertz did, and so, the very human disinclination to confess error is why she is extremely unlikely to favor a serious reversal of policy with respect to Facebook specifically and Big Tech more generally,” he said.
He added: “And because Big Tech-related issues are ubiquitous in 2021, from COVID-19 disinformation to trade policy, fintech, and beyond, her biases ought to disqualify her from service until she has greater distance from her recent Facebook colleagues.”
Hertz is one of several prominent Biden advisers with close ties to Big Tech firms facing federal inquiries, and companies also pushing candidates for important but lesser-known roles.
According to Politico, one name under consideration for assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s antitrust division is Susan Davies, a former deputy White House counsel under Barack Obama and a veteran of the Clinton administration who worked at DOJ with Biden’s attorney general pick, Merrick Garland. At law firm Kirkland & Ellis, Davies is a partner representing “multiple Fortune 100 companies as they navigate the issues arising from” federal inquiries and “regulatory, legislative, intellectual property, and appellate litigation.” Davies “frequently interacts with regulators and policy makers on behalf of corporate clients,” her biography states. A filing unearthed by the Intercept shows Davies represented Facebook when the company was under fire for breaching federal antitrust and California unfair competition laws.
“AOC’s got it right on the head. She said these guys are all Obama retreads, which would be fine usually, except for the fact that most of the Obama retreads were, in fact, Clinton retreads before that,” said Mike McKenna, a veteran of the Bush administration and former deputy director in the Trump White House Office of Legislative Affairs, pointing to the criticism that some left-wing Democrats have leveled at Biden’s picks. “If you’re looking for revolutionaries, you don’t go hunting around in the discount bracket at a bookstore.”
Another former Facebook board member advising the transition, typically regarded as a clearinghouse for future personnel, is Erskine Bowles. A White House chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton, Bowles spent nearly a decade atop Facebook’s board before leaving in 2019.
Nicole Wong, on Biden’s National Security Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy agency review teams, was Obama’s deputy chief technology officer. Wong is a former vice president and deputy general counsel at Google and legal director at Twitter.
Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, raised millions from Silicon Valley as the head of the liberal Center for American Progress and its political arm, the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
According to Bovard, Silicon Valley firms are well-placed to do battle in Washington despite Trump’s crackdown on Google and Facebook in the waning months of his presidency, and the potential for new inquiries.
“Having Big Tech veterans in the White House will give Facebook, Google, and other firms an inside track on what’s coming, and the best way to ensure it never happens,” she said.
Katherine Doyle is a White House reporter for the Washington Examiner.
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