On a Crowded Presidential Debate Stage, Little Room for Silicon Valley

(Bloomberg) -- Inside the Silicon Valley bubble, it can seem like Washington’s singular focus is on tech behemoths. An ever-growing list of Congressional committees have summoned a parade of tech executives to testify. Reporters around the world have chronicled the failings of the Bay Area’s leviathans. And presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren put up a billboard in San Francisco that reads “BREAK UP BIG TECH.”

But watching the Democratic debates these past two nights served as a humbling reminder about where these issues sit in the perceived hierarchy of political problems: Tech doesn’t seem to be a priority at all. The candidates opined on topics ranging from free college, to healthcare, to guns, to Iran. And while antitrust enforcement came up, the tech companies still sustained barely a glancing blow.

Even if you’re a Silicon Valley executive happy to have avoided the negative attention, you’ve got to be smarting from your near-irrelevance, no?

To be sure, Andrew Yang and Senator Cory Booker said Amazon.com Inc. should be paying more in taxes. But candidates mostly criticized Silicon Valley only in the broader context of rising corporate power. Even Warren didn’t seem to be too focused on tech in particular. “There is way too much consolidation now in giant industries in this country,” she said.

What about the feared Apple app store fees? Reports of shopping surveillance at Alphabet Inc.’s Google? Or the independent contractor debate raging in California that threatens the business models of Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc.? None of those controversies garnered even a mention. Scanning a transcript, the word “privacy” never passed anyone’s lips.

It wasn’t just the political moderators avoiding the issue, either. There was scant attention paid to tech in anyone’s free-form opening or closing statements. And when challenged to name the United States’ biggest geopolitical threat, nobody cited America’s self-imposed corporate surveillance state. Instead, they listed climate change, nuclear proliferation, China, Russia and Donald Trump.

I’m not saying they’re wrong to ignore these companies. The foibles of a few executives in Menlo Park and Mountain View, California can seem trivial compared with melting ice caps and rival nation states. Even so, many believe that D.C. needs to get up to speed with the technological revolution.

Mark Zuckerberg himself has been increasingly supportive of government regulation, saying at the Aspen Ideas festival on Wednesday that politicians needed to hash out the “fundamental trade-offs in values” posed by the rise of digital platforms, “that I don’t think people want private companies to be making by themselves.”

If elected, would a Democratic president wrangle Big Tech? Warren, who talks about the industry more than her rivals on the campaign trail, has a plan for this—and for everything else. But where would this one rank if she were called on to actually start enacting her proposals?

Yes, the Justice Department is looking at a number of large technology companies, and yes, there is growing bipartisan skepticism of Silicon Valley (though Republicans can seem singularly fixated on political bias). But this week’s debates threw some cold water on the idea that big change is on the horizon. Maybe that’s why Zuckerberg is so willing to kick the can to the regulators. 

And here’s what you need to know in global technology news

Influential Apple designer Jony Ive is leaving the tech giant to form his own design firm, Apple said on Thursday. Here's more on the move and the company's succession plans. The Financial Times published a transcript of its interview with the departing executive. 

Twitter has thought up a new way to walk the line between free speech and enforcing its terms of service: a label that will signal when a tweet is in violation of the company's rules. It can deploy the signal when it doesn't want to take the tweet down altogether. The notification could theoretically apply to presidential missives. 

Huawei employees collaborated with Chinese armed forces personnel on research projects, indicating closer links between the company and the government than had been previously acknowledged. 

During an interview at a Bloomberg conference on Thursday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said she supported a ban on the sale of e-cigarettes in San Francisco. 

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