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Inside the behind-the-scenes fight to convince Joe Biden about Silicon Valley

Who will have a seat at the table?

Tech executives meet with members of the Obama administration at a large conference table.
Joe Biden and Barack Obama meet with tech executives in the White House in December 2013.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to Silicon Valley, Joe Biden is something of a blank slate. And for Silicon Valley, that means Joe Biden is something of an opportunity.

So Big Tech reformers and Big Tech allies are gearing up for a spirited fight in the coming months over the types of people who will staff the Biden administration. Those personnel decisions will offer some of the first revelations into how exactly the president-elect will regulate the tech industry and its titans, a high-stakes question about the American economy that he mostly avoided answering during his campaign.

That ambiguity is making the transition period all the more important, a dozen people with ties to the Biden team tell Recode. Reformers want to make sure they at least have a seat at the table and that they aren’t boxed out by well-paid industry interests. Forces aligned with the industry, meanwhile, want to make sure that a Biden administration isn’t too captive to the online left, even though they know it won’t resemble the halcyon days of Barack Obama.

Back then, Silicon Valley was a celebrated part of America’s innovation economy. Since Obama left office, though, the tech industry has become radioactive to parts of both the left and the right, part of a “techlash” that has culminated in calls to break up Big Tech companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Tech critics worry that these companies and their leaders have amassed too much control over Americans’ lives when it comes to privacy, the economy, and politics. Now Obama’s former No. 2 will have to answer these important questions on dicier terrain: Will he pursue this breakup? Will he inflame the tensions or cool them? Will he side more with the reformers or the industry?

The next few months will test the influence and muscle of both sides. Tech insiders have been among Biden’s biggest donors and are well-organized. But Biden has to be sensitive to a far left that is deeply skeptical of any corporate incursions — and is often louder.

“They’re in a difficult political situation,” said Rob Atkinson, the head of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation think tank, who helped lead a tech advisory committee for Biden during the campaign. “It’s almost like a draft lottery for what team you want. You want to pick somebody on your team from the progressive wing and then somebody more from the tech or moderate wing. He’s going to have to do both.”

The draft has already begun: Phones are ringing across the tech industry as people close to the Biden campaign gauge some leaders’ interest in joining the administration and other Silicon Valley veterans hunt for inroads. Lobbyists and activists alike are researching names who they might want to push on Capitol Hill or disparage in the press. People in the Bay Area who raised money for Biden are being overwhelmed with requests to pass along resumes to his inner circle. And Biden’s team is encouraging experts who served on Biden’s tech advisory committee to apply for positions in the administration.

Flashpoints, too, have already emerged that speak to these new battle lines. Activists have grown concerned about a report that Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google and a vocal defender of technology giants, was “being talked about” to lead a new tech task force out of the White House. (The report did not say who was doing this talking.)

On Monday, a dozen progressive groups wrote to the Biden transition effort to plead that Schmidt not be appointed to this task force. The letter — shared first with Recode — amounted to a warning shot not just about one particular tech billionaire but about the influence of the tech industry on politics more broadly.

“The appointment of Schmidt risks fracturing a Democratic coalition that your campaign and so many others worked so hard to build over the past several months,” said the letter-writers, which included activist groups like Demand Progress, the Revolving Door Project, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group allied with leading Big Tech critic Elizabeth Warren. “While the appointment of Schmidt may attract praise from certain elites in both Washington and Silicon Valley, it risks alienating an overwhelming majority of the electorate, including within the Democratic base, who want to see the economic power of major corporations reined in.”

Silicon Valley sources close to the Biden team tell Recode that they are unaware of any planned formal role for Schmidt and that they find one hard to believe given the optics of Big Tech. A source familiar with the matter said there have been no discussions between the Biden transition team and Schmidt about a role.

Sources do, however, expect Schmidt, a bipartisan veteran of the Washington scene who had wide influence during the Obama years but also has had complimentary things to say about Jared Kushner, to at least have considerable access to the Biden White House. There’s also the possibility that some aides at Schmidt’s philanthropic foundation, which is stacked with former Obama hands, will decamp for the new administration.

Schmidt and the Biden transition team declined to comment.

The battle over Schmidt is just one of several personnel fights that will likely play out in the first year of the new administration. Other key positions that tech voices will surely try to influence include the chairs of the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, and the head of the Department of Justice’s antitrust division — all roles that police tech giants’ behavior.

People allied with Big Tech say they aren’t concerned with developing blacklists of reformers who must be repelled. But they are concerned about the converse — that the progressives are organizing themselves to torpedo any and all people who worked in the industry, even if they have relevant policy expertise about complicated topics that would prove valuable to the country.

“You would really want to have an administration that doesn’t have industry voices as a part of it? That to me sounds like a really problematic outcome,” said Matt Perault, a former Facebook policy executive who now leads Duke’s Center on Science and Technology Policy and has offered policy advice to the Biden team. “So I hope there aren’t those kinds of litmus tests.”

It’s still too early to know how this will work out. Few heavyweights are ultimately expected to take staff jobs. But some names are beginning to be privately bandied about by people with ties to the transition effort.

Laurene Powell Jobs, the philanthropist and wife of the late Steve Jobs, stirred some DC speculation that she might be interested in a role with her statement about her hopes for the new administration, a source told Recode. Meg Whitman, the longtime tech executive who most recently served as the CEO of Quibi, is earning a look as a potential secretary of commerce. (Whitman, a Republican, often appeared on calls for Biden’s national finance committee.) Former presidential candidate and tech dystopian Andrew Yang has also attracted buzz and confirmed interest in serving as the country’s chief technology officer, a position that some Silicon Valley supporters hope will be at the Cabinet level.

But what casts a shadow over all of this jockeying is that Biden and his aides were, and will continue to be, reluctant to seem too cozy with high-profile tech insiders, according to people who have spoken with these aides.

The reason these names matter so much is that Biden has largely kept Silicon Valley guessing about where exactly he falls when it comes to tech policy. Over the course of the race, he and his aides made plain their disdain for Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, who Biden said was “a real problem.” But they had less to say about other tech giants. Biden has promised to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that shields social media companies from lawsuits, but he’s released few details about that plan. And he has sounded the alarm about corporate consolidation, but stopped short of calling for a breakup of Big Tech.

That lack of clarity has also been reflected in his personnel decisions thus far. The 700 names on Biden’s “Innovation Policy Committee,” a working group of volunteers meant to help the campaign surface policy ideas, feature both industry insiders and prominent activists calling for a breakup. Biden’s hiring of tech executives for his transition, such as Apple’s top lobbyist, Cynthia Hogan, could be seen as a capitulation to Big Tech — but it could also be read as Biden merely rehiring his former aides, including his former counsel, Hogan, who just happened to have spent a few years at the tech giants.

That all has given both sides reason for optimism. So, too, has the presence of two senior Biden advisers, Bruce Reed and new chief of staff Ron Klain, who each have ties to tech leaders. Both reformers and industry allies see them as reasonable brokers.

Jim Steyer, the head of Common Sense Media and a prominent privacy critic of Big Tech, said he has passed along names and ideas to people like Reed, a close friend of his. He is not naive and expects the tech industry to still have access to Biden, but not exclusive access like under Obama.

“Do I think that the Biden administration is going to turn over his tech agenda to the industry? No, I do not,” Steyer said. “They’re not going to be bought and sold by the tech industry.”

But if the old adage that “personnel is policy” is true, the next few weeks will reveal whether any of this optimism is misplaced. But even before any compromises, there are already signs of just how much the Overton window has shifted when it comes to Silicon Valley over the last four years.

Before Election Day in 2016, for example, Facebook’s No. 2, Sheryl Sandberg, was seen as a leading contender to be secretary of the treasury in a Clinton administration.

Now, four years later in an incoming Democratic administration, the possibility of a Treasury Secretary Sandberg seems unthinkable — if not downright ludicrous.