The top Democratic presidential candidates on Tuesday night wrangled over their differing views on how to take on the unprecedented power of Big Tech, marking the first time the contenders have been asked to discuss the issue on the debate stage.
Most of the candidates drew a contrast between their own views and those of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a top-tier hopeful who has called for breaking up top tech companies including Facebook, Google and Amazon.
While other candidates, including former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, agreed the government should take on Big Tech, they said they don’t believe “breaking up” the companies will properly address issues including data privacy and market power.
“We will be unafraid to break up big businesses if we have to do that,” O’Rourke said, responding to Warren’s proposal, “but I don’t think it is the role of a president or a candidate for the presidency to specifically call out which companies will be broken up.”
Warren defended her Big Tech plan, which was one of the first she offered after announcing her presidential candidacy and has quickly become one of her pet issues. She presented breaking up tech companies as one of the most powerful tools the government has for taking them on.
“I’m not willing to give up and let a handful of monopolists dominate our economy and our democracy,” Warren said. “It’s time to fight back.”
Few other candidates have officially gotten behind her efforts.
Even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a fellow progressive who has made opposition to concentrated corporate power a centerpiece of his campaign, did not explicitly say he is behind Warren’s plan. He called for appointing antitrust enforcers “who will take on these huge monopolies.”
“We need a president who has the guts to appoint an attorney general who will take on these huge monopolies, protect small business and protect consumers by ending the price fixing,” Sanders said, noting that he also believes there is a monopoly issue in Wall Street and health care.
The argument comes as regulators and policymakers have significantly ratcheted up their investigations into the top tech companies, probing whether they use their dominant market positions to quash competitors and take advantage of consumers.
Yang, who has sought to present himself as the most tech-savvy candidate, has argued that he believes a legislative framework that treats “data as property” would protect users from being exploited by companies like Facebook and Twitter.
“Absolutely excesses in technology, and in some cases having them divest parts of their business is the right move, but we also have to be realistic that competition does not solve all of the problems,” Yang said. “It’s not like breaking up these big tech companies will revive Main Street businesses around the country.”
He said we “need new solutions and a new toolkit.”
O’Rourke, meanwhile, called for “very tough, very clear, very transparent rules of the road” around how companies can amass and treat user data.
And Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) used the opportunity to promote her recent push to get Twitter to delete President Trump’s account, which she says the president regularly uses to promote dangerous misinformation, a violation of Twitter’s rules. Twitter says it treats speech from politicians differently, keeping it online under the assumption that it is “newsworthy” even when the posts violate Twitter’s policies.
It marked the first time the Democratic presidential candidates have criticized the companies at length on a national stage since the start of the campaign, exposing the enormous shift in public opinion since Democrats and Republicans alike sought to court companies like Facebook and Google during elections before 2016.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), formerly seen widely as an ally to Silicon Valley, said he believes there is “a massive crisis in our democracy with the way these tech companies are being used, not just in terms of anti-competitive practices, but also to undermine our democracy.”
“As president of the United States, I will put people in place who enforce anti-trust laws,” Booker said.