USA

Big Tech Makes Inroads With the Biden Campaign

WASHINGTON — Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been critical of Big Tech, admonishing Facebook for mishandling misinformation and saying internet companies should lose a central legal protection.

But his campaign has quietly welcomed onto its staff and policy groups people who have worked with or for Silicon Valley giants, raising concerns among the industry’s critics that the companies are seeking to co-opt a potential Biden administration.

One of Mr. Biden’s closest aides joined the campaign from Apple, while others held senior roles at firms that consulted for major tech companies. And a nearly 700-person volunteer group advising the campaign, the Innovation Policy Committee, includes at least eight people who work for Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times. Other committee members have close ties to the companies, including economists and lawyers who have advised them, and officials at think tanks funded by them.

The group’s members also include some prominent progressives arguing for stiffer regulation of tech. But the presence of the industry’s allies inside Mr. Biden’s policy apparatus and campaign and transition teams — and his campaign’s effort to ensure the confidentiality of its policy process — has alarmed an increasingly influential coalition of liberals who say the tech titans stifle competition, disregard user privacy and fail to adequately police hate speech and disinformation.

They are hoping to dissuade Mr. Biden, who has not made tech issues a major focus of his campaign, from following the example of his former boss, President Barack Obama, whose embrace of tech companies helped turn them into darlings in Washington.

Today the tech giants are trying to fend off new regulations or antitrust lawsuits. The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have spent more than a year investigating Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple for possible violations of competition law. During a House hearing last month, lawmakers from both parties grilled the chief executives of all four companies about accusations that their dominance had hurt consumers, rivals and small businesses, as well as what they were doing to police false information.

“The environment is very different now,” said Robert D. Atkinson, the president of a think tank that has been funded in part by Google, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. “When Obama took office, you know, tech was like a bromance kind of thing. Everybody loved it, and people didn’t see the issues that some people see now.”

A co-author of “Big Is Beautiful: Debunking the Myth of Small Business,” a 2018 book, Mr. Atkinson is among the allies of Big Tech on the Innovation Policy Committee. While he said the members represented “a fairly diverse set of views,” he predicted that a potential Biden administration would face significant pressure from the left to clamp down on the major tech companies.

Matt Hill, a spokesman for Mr. Biden’s campaign, said in a statement that the former vice president would not take it easy on Big Tech.

“Many technology giants and their executives have not only abused their power but misled the American people, damaged our democracy and evaded any form of responsibility,” Mr. Hill said. “Anyone who thinks that campaign volunteers or advisers will change Joe Biden’s fundamental commitment to stopping the abuse of power and stepping up for the middle class doesn’t know Joe Biden.”

The tech policy committee, which is broken down into smaller specialty groups, is part of a vast network of thousands of policy advisers assembled by the campaign. The policy teams do not have ultimate authority over the campaign’s proposals or advise Mr. Biden directly. But lobbyists and activists are watching them closely for signs of Mr. Biden’s approach to issues and his possible hiring pool if he is elected.

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Credit...Win McNamee/Getty Images

Mr. Biden’s campaign and transition team include advisers with ties to tech companies and other industries that worry liberals. Avril Haines, a former Obama national security and intelligence official who is helping to lead Mr. Biden’s transition team, was a consultant for the data-mining company Palantir and WestExec Advisors, a firm that represented a major tech company it hasn’t identified.

A WestExec co-founder and Obama State Department official, Antony J. Blinken, is running the Biden campaign’s foreign policy operation. WestExec has worked with the philanthropy started by Eric Schmidt, the former Google chairman, and with Google’s in-house incubation unit, Jigsaw. But Mr. Blinken and Ms. Haines did not participate in that work, according to the Biden campaign, which said both advisers stepped away from WestExec this month.

Cynthia C. Hogan, a former White House lawyer for Mr. Biden who is helping to lead his vice-presidential selection process, was a lobbyist and government affairs executive at Apple. She tendered her resignation from the company in April, according to the Biden campaign.

A spokeswoman for Google said in a statement that employees worked with campaigns in their personal capacities and not as representatives of the company. Apple said an employee participating in the Biden policy process was doing so on his own time during nights and weekends. Facebook declined to comment on the committee but pointed to a policy that allows employees to engage in political activities on their personal time. Amazon declined to comment.

Among the participants in the large tech policy committee are Facebook’s director of global competition policy, Anant Raut, and Matt Perault, who testified as director of public policy for the company during a congressional antitrust investigation last year before departing for academia.

Credit...Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

Another member is Howard Shelanski, a partner at the law firm Davis Polk who represents Facebook in the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust investigation into the company. He is not working with the group of committee members dealing with questions about the tech platforms, said a person familiar with his involvement, who would speak only anonymously.

Still more members work for organizations, like Mr. Atkinson’s, that receive funding from the companies or are economists who have consulted for Amazon, Google and Apple. Mr. Atkinson himself is not a member of the antitrust group.

The committee is divided into smaller groups that focus on issues like antitrust policy, artificial intelligence, broadband access, disinformation and data privacy. The antitrust group includes people with tech ties like Mr. Perault, Mr. Raut and Mr. Shelanski. But it also includes some people who have pushed for more scrutiny of the tech giants, including employees at rival companies as well as the activist Sarah Miller and Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, prominent critics who have called for more vigorous antitrust enforcement. (Mr. Wu is also a contributing opinion writer at The Times.)

Credit...Andrew Mangum for The New York Times
Credit...Valerie Chiang for The New York Times

The Biden campaign identified two aides, Bruce Reed and Stef Feldman, as more directly counseling the former vice president on technology issues. The campaign said Mr. Blinken was not advising the campaign on domestic technology policy. It stressed that members of its policy committees were not there to represent their employers or clients, and that lobbyists — except those who represent labor unions — were barred from participating.

After The Times asked members of the tech policy volunteer group about their work, some of them received a message “to remind everyone that the work we are doing here is for the purpose of developing policy positions that are sound and in the best interest of the candidate and his election as president.”

The message noted that there were “a variety of rumors floating around” about how “the campaign is managing conflicts of interest and lobbying by corporate and other interests.” And it acknowledged that while “it is sometimes hard to separate one’s personal views from those of one’s employer or clients,” members should do their “absolute best to ensure that the ideas that you offer up and the contributions that you make are consistent with what is best for the candidate and not what is best for you or your clients or your employer.”

A list of rules provided to members of the policy groups, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, instructs participants not to disclose their participation “on social media such as Facebook or LinkedIn or in your professional bio.” It also warns them not to discuss or distribute names of other committee members, contents of committee conversations, emails from the committee or to talk to the news media.

“Simply put, do not talk to the press,” the document reads, emphasizing “do not talk to the press” in boldface.

Several members of the tech committee followed that guidance, declining to discuss their involvement and referring inquiries to the campaign. But some members of the antitrust subgroup expressed optimism that a Biden administration would usher in more rigorous approaches to the law.

“We’re really at the crux of needing some very, very strong leadership on antitrust and competition, and some strengthening of the laws,” said Diana L. Moss, a member of the antitrust subgroup and president of the American Antitrust Institute, whose think tank has accepted funds from Amazon and Google.

“We’ve had 40 years of lax enforcement and all the damage to prove it,” she said, stressing that she was speaking for herself and not the Biden policy committee.

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