Dozens of top Biden administration officials have professional ties to Big Tech that could raise questions about the administration’s willingness to get tough on Silicon Valley.
The ties give Big Tech potential allies in the White House as Silicon Valley faces a reckoning in Washington amid bipartisan backlash on issues from alleged anticompetitive business practices to insufficient privacy policies, and the spread of baseless and false claims on their platforms.
“There are any number of instances where you can imagine these relationships potentially impacting policy” issues such as trade negotiations, said David Segal, the executive director of digital rights group Demand Progress.
The Technology 202’s analysis is based on a review of hundreds of financial disclosure filings filed by Biden administration officials.
The hires don't violate President Biden's ethics policy issued when he entered the White House. And they don't necessarily mean the administration won't crack down on the practices of large tech companies. And the president recently appointed renowned Silicon Valley critic Lina Khan to head the Federal Trade Commission.
But they do suggest a closeness between the tech industry and the Biden administration during a time when the former is under massive scrutiny.
According to our review, Facebook leads the pack with 11 administration officials who previously worked for the company in some capacity. Alphabet came in second with 10 officials and Microsoft trailed with eight.
The officials are spread through the government, although the White House is home to the most people who worked for the companies at 13, representing around 8 percent of the White House staffers whose filings The Technology 202 examined. The State Department and Pentagon tied for second place with 6 officials each, the review shows.
Some of the officials with the most ties to Big Tech serve at the top of the administration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for example, disclosed providing “advisory services” to Facebook, Uber, Microsoft and LinkedIn, which is now owned by Microsoft.
Other members of Biden’s Cabinet, such as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, provided legal services for Uber and ex-Twitter executive Gabriel Stricker, who is now chief communications officer at the Emerson Collective. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines advised Microsoft and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough provided strategic advice to Apple.
The financial disclosure filings do not provide details about the work, including start and end dates. WestExec Advisors, the firm Blinken and Haines consulted through, "advised on issues related to cyberspace and global efforts to better protect customers from cyberattacks," Microsoft spokeswoman Kate Frischmann said. Uber and Apple did not respond to requests for comment. Facebook and Twitter declined to comment.
The all-encompassing nature of the tech industry presents challenges for the administration, consumer advocates warn.
“Tech policy can encompass basically every part of the federal government,” from tax policy, to transportation issues, said Max Moran, the research director of the personnel team of the Revolving Door Project, an initiative of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research that looks at government appointees.
The officials also may have a hand in the selection of other officials who could play a major role in tech policy.
Progressive groups want Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco — the Justice Department’s second-highest-ranking official — to recuse herself from deliberations about the future leader of the department’s Antitrust Division because she provided “legal services” to Apple before entering the government.
“Individuals with personal ties to Big Tech should be prevented from playing a role in determining who will lead the Antitrust Division,” 18 groups, including the Revolving Door Project, wrote in an April letter to Biden.
“In the interest of preserving the integrity and independence of the office, we urge that Monaco be removed from the deliberation process over who will lead the Antitrust Division,” they added.
In general, Biden administration officials are required to sign an ethics pledge prohibiting them from participating in a matter “involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related” to former employers and clients.
For the pledge to be technically violated, there has to be a specific matter that causes a conflict, according to Delaney Marsco, the senior legal counsel for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center.
“The President has instituted the highest ethical standards of any administration ever,” a White House spokesperson said. “And as appointees, these staff members are subject to the pledge and accordingly, are recused from particular matters involving these former employers/clients (for two years from their date of appointment).”
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment.
Technology companies have increased their lobbying efforts in recent years — including, seemingly, by trying to exert direct influence on senior leaders.
Amazon, for example, hired Jeff Ricchetti — the brother of Biden senior counselor Steve Ricchetti — last year to lobby Congress, my colleagues Michael Scherer and Sean Sullivan reported last week.
The company paid him $150,000 through March to lobby on the online marketplace and minimum-wage legislation, disclosures show.
(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Ricchetti no longer lobbies the “White House Office” for any clients and has not lobbied his brother, he said.
Advocacy groups see some positive steps by the administration in selecting officials who could look closely at the power the companies wield.
For example, the recent elevation of Khan was cheered on by groups that want the major platforms to face greater Washington scrutiny.
“There are competing impulses within the administration, and Lina Khan’s selection is the apotheosis of that,” Segal said.
Biden has yet to fill another slot on the FTC held by Rohit Chopra. Biden picked Chopra to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in January.
Biden has also brought on Tim Wu, another critic of the tech industry's power, to work on competition and technology policy at the White House's National Economic Council.
Our top tabs
Germany’s antitrust watchdog opened an investigation into Apple.
It’s the fourth investigation of a major technology company opened by the watchdog in the months since a digital competition law was enacted, the Financial Times’s Erika Solomon reports.
The investigation will focus on the company’s App Store, “as it enables Apple in many ways to influence the business activities of third parties,” said Andreas Mundt, who leads Germany’s Federal Cartel Office.
The company told Reuters that its App Store gives all German developers equal opportunities. “We look forward to discussing our approach with the FCO and having an open dialogue about any of their concerns,” a representative said.
Amazon tells employees in the United Kingdom to destroy millions of unsold items, an investigation found.
The products are destroyed because the cost of storing them in Amazon’s Dunfermline warehouse is greater than the cost of destroying them, ITV’s Richard Pallot reports. Destroyed products have included electronic devices and sealed face masks, according to the report.
“We are working toward a goal of zero product disposal and our priority is to resell, donate to charitable organizations or recycle any unsold products,” the company said. “No items are sent to landfill in the U.K. As a last resort, we will send items to energy recovery, but we're working hard to drive the number of times this happens down to zero.” The company told the Verge that a landfill identified by ITV as a destination for some of the items is actually a recycling center.
Lawmakers are pressing Facebook for answers about vaccine misinformation.
Three Democratic senators blasted the company’s “continued failure to remove vaccine information from its platforms” and asked for details on the number of posts with baseless vaccine-related claims on the platforms.
Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) also asked the company for an explanation of the gap between its March 2019 announcement that it would stop recommending groups that spread the claims and a February 2021 announcement that it would remove false claims about the coronavirus and vaccines.
“We’re working with health experts around the world to identify and address harmful claims about covid-19 and connect over 2 billion people to resources from health authorities, including through our covid-19 Information Center,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said. “We have removed more than 18 million pieces of content globally for breaking our rules on covid misinformation and applied warning labels to over 167 million pieces of content rated false by more than 80 independent fact-checking partners who span 60 languages. We’re continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and update our policies as new facts and trends emerge.”
Rant and rave
Google executives are worried that Google under CEO Sundar Pichai suffers from “a paralyzing bureaucracy, a bias toward inaction and a fixation on public perception,” the New York Times's Daisuke Wakabayashi reports. My colleague, Gerrit De Vynck:
The New York Times's Shira Ovide:
I hope the lesson from fractures at Google is NOT that cruel dictators are more effective leaders. (That has problems too.)— Shira Ovide (@ShiraOvide) June 21, 2021
Inside the industry
- Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, speaks at a NetChoice event today at noon.
- Oliver Dowden, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, discusses global competition over technology at a Brookings Institution event on Wednesday at 9 a.m.
- The House Judiciary Committee marks up antitrust legislation on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
- Google CFO Ruth Porat, former TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot and former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty speak at a Washington Post Live event on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.
- Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, discusses antitrust legislation at a Washington Post Live event on Friday at 11 a.m.
- Acting Federal Communications Commission chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel discusses the Emergency Broadband Benefit program at a New America event on June 29 at noon.