On Sunday, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar joined the 2020 Democratic race, separating herself from the pack by talking up her efforts to take on big tech.
Most Democratic contenders have entered the race attempting to outflank one another from the left on big progressive ideals like universal health care and criminal justice reform, but Klobuchar, a third-term senator, is sidestepping that progressive fight to carve out a space on consumer protection.
“We need to put some digital rules into law when it comes to people’s privacy. For too long the big tech companies have been telling you ‘Don’t worry! We’ve got your back!’ while your identities are being stolen and your data is mined,” she said during her launch on Sunday. “Our laws need to be as sophisticated as the people who are breaking them.”
Klobuchar has made the oversight of big tech one of her banner issues in Congress. “The digital revolution isn’t just coming, it’s here,” she said.
She’s scrutinized Facebook, Google, and Twitter as they’ve been forced to explain their policies on privacy and political advertising. She wants to make it harder for big companies to buy or merge with smaller companies. And while other Democrats have worked on these issues, too — including Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker — Klobuchar has introduced or cosponsored nearly twice as many bills on these subjects in the past few years than any other Democrat currently in the race (or likely to get in).
Conversations with more than a dozen members of Congress, current and former agency officials, tech industry insiders, and antitrust experts showed that she’s considered an expert in tech policy and a pragmatist by even her political and policy adversaries, who see her as a pragmatist.
“She not only has a deep background on facts and figures, she’s thought deeply about the issues,” says Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), one of her co-sponsors on a data privacy bill. “She has a unique ability to get down into the weeds but also be able to look at an issue from 30,000 feet.”
Experts in relevant agencies respect her, too. “Among her colleagues, I think she is one of the most impressive measured by her extensive study of these topics,” said Bill Kovacic, the Republican former chair of the Federal Trade Commission, who praised Klobuchar’s positioning on and understanding of antitrust and privacy. “She’s made an investment that really stands out, building a base of knowledge that is formidable.”
And even those in the tech industry grudgingly acknowledge she knows what she’s talking about. “What I would say about her is that it’s the kind of office that you want to deal with,” said one tech industry source. “I don’t mean that in the sense that we always get what we want. You want somebody who’s thorough and fair-minded and deliberate.”
The question is whether her signature issue is one that will capture the attention (and the votes) of Democratic primary-goers. A knock on Klobuchar is that she’s the “senator of small things,” a practical lawmaker who works on consumer issues like toy safety or airline ticket price transparency. But while these are often seen as small potatoes, her latest forays go after some of the biggest corporations in America.
Klobuchar has been out in front on tech reform
Arguably, Klobuchar’s biggest victory came in the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
She introduced the Honest Ads Act alongside Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), a bill that would force platforms like Facebook to disclose the purchaser of an advertisement, as is required on television for political ads.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google responded before the bill had been approved by Congress. Each of these tech giants now marks political ads with a “Paid for by X” label, and all have also created some kind of hub or database for users to examine the kinds of political ads that are on their platforms.
“You have to give her points for pointing out early on that the big platforms really blew it as it related to Russia and others try to exploit the platforms. The platforms obviously did a horrendous job in the 2016 election. Her bill responds to that,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), one of the upper chamber’s leading voices on tech.
Others give her credit for getting on the issue early too.
“She didn’t just jump on the bandwagon on this. She was really active on it before everyone was active it,” says one agency official. The Honest Ads Act “is goring the ox of some heavy-duty Democratic donors. She’s been pretty fearless in going after those guys without fear or favor.”
Still, reformers consider the bill more of a first step toward reform than a sweeping change. The Honest Ads Act is “for sure the first step in trying to regulate internet ads, including those on social media, in a way that’s at all close to the way that we do for television ads,” said Shannon McGregor, a political communications researcher at the University of Utah.
Some have argued that it barely scratches the surface of how Russian trolls used social media to spread misinformation in 2016.
It’s worth noting that other 2020 hopefuls have also been active in the tech space in different capacities.
Harris was at the forefront of establishing online privacy policies and anti-harassment practices while she was California attorney general. Booker has also been involved in calls to examine the size of Silicon Valley giants. And Warren is seen as giving one of the watershed speeches on how tech companies have gotten so big that they’re harming competition.
Klobuchar is widely viewed as a leader on antitrust policy and is the top Democrat on the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee. She’s spearheaded multiple bills that would implement portions of the Democrats’ “Better Deal” platform, dialing up the scrutiny on mega-mergers across different industries.
“She has not been reticent on this issue,” says Gigi Sohn, a former FCC adviser and current fellow at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Tech and Policy. “She is a subject matter expert.”
Klobuchar’s antitrust positions put her at odds with big companies like Google and Facebook that have increasingly sought to buy up smaller companies, but she’s not their sworn enemy.
She has stood by the industry on issues like patent reform and high-skilled immigration, including signing onto bills that streamlined the music licensing process for digital streaming services like Spotify and expedited the patenting process. These are things the tech industry likes.
The industry has donated to her campaign, which is true of many of her other fellow 2020 candidates.
“We’ve worked with her very closely on patent litigation reforms and she very aggressively took on patent trolls,” says Consumer Technology Association senior vice president of government affairs Michael Petricone. “She’s done other things in showing a good degree of foresight, in figuring out how to prepare American workers for a tech economy.”
A handful of other bills from Klobuchar cover data collection and information privacy, modify antitrust enforcement requirements and merger requirements, and seek to expand access to broadband in rural areas.
President Klobuchar would matter
Most of Klobuchar’s action on tech has, obviously, taken place legislatively or in the form of committee hearings and oversight. As president, she would have an expanded ability to shape a policy agenda.
She would be charged with appointing the attorney general, the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, and the commissioners and chair of the FTC. The DOJ and FTC are the main enforcers of US antitrust policy and overseers of mergers in the United States. Klobuchar appointees would presumably be more aggressive on antitrust enforcement and put greater scrutiny on proposed deals.
She would also appoint the commissioners and chair of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the radio, television, and phone industries. The FCC under Trump appointee Ajit Pai repealed net neutrality. Klobuchar, like most Democrats, opposed the decision.
Diana Moss, president of the American Antitrust Institute, noted that the Council of Economic Advisers, an agency within the Executive Office of the President to which he or she makes appointments, could also be influential in the tech realm. The CEA “has historically been a powerful entity in crafting economic policy agendas,” Moss said. “I could see that being revitalized and proving important input on tech issues to a different White House.”
Kovacic, who appeared before Klobuchar in Senate committee hearings and met with her multiple times during his tenure at the FTC, said what is impressive about the senator’s knowledge in areas such as antitrust enforcement and data privacy is its depth — Klobuchar understands technical features, broad policy considerations, and what policy framework should look like as well as how it should be enforced and implemented. “It’s not just should we go to the moon, but okay, how are we going to get there?” he said.
Dropping the hammer on big tech is popular
Klobuchar’s issue is relatively popular.
A poll conducted by the market research firm HarrisX in 2018 found that 53 percent of Americans believe big tech companies should be regulated by the federal government similarly to big banks.
Americans are becoming increasingly worried about data privacy, with Pew polling showing that most people believe they’ve lost control of how personal information is collected and used.
And while many big tech brands are still popular, they are not as popular as they once were. A survey from the progressive research group Data for Progress shared exclusively with Vox found that nearly six in 10 voters would support a tax on tech companies that profit from user data and user-generated content.
A string of news stories have contributed: Facebook’s cascade of scandals surrounding data privacy, Russian interference in elections, and growing unease with the size of companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon.
But few Americans list these issues as their top political concern, or, really, even close to it. In particular, Democratic voters are prioritizing issues such as health care, income inequality, and climate change. These policy areas are likely to be the big themes in the 2020 Democratic primary and get media oxygen over issues like competition and tech.
Klobuchar may be able to weave those into her broader message on the economy, as she has in the past. In a 2017 speech at the Center for American Progress, she acknowledged that antitrust law is “not always front and center,” though she believes it should be. “Protecting competition speaks to the basic principles of economic opportunity and fairness,” she said.