To say that there’s a lot riding on the midterm elections would be an understatement. For Democrats, it’s a chance to take over the House of Representatives and serve as a check on President Trump’s administration and a (likely) Republican-led Senate. For Republicans, it’s an opportunity to press forward on reforms to healthcare and tax policy that evaded them in the first two years of the Trump presidency.
This election also comes at a critical time for the tech industry, when members of both parties are beginning to challenge the dominance of companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple. No longer the golden children of a new economy, these juggernauts have faced pointed questions from Congress and state governments on everything from their data collection practices to their business models to how they moderate and police speech. At the same time, important questions about issues like net neutrality and data privacy hang in limbo. Whether the House goes blue or stays red could shape any upcoming privacy legislation, and a Democratic House could move forward on restoring net neutrality, something the Senate has already approved.
When voters head to the polls on November 6, they may not be as focused on technology as they are on, say, healthcare or gun control. But the results may well impact Big Tech in a big way, which, in turn, impacts all of us. Here’s who and what to watch for this election night:
Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee’s Senate Race
Republican Marsha Blackburn, a US representative since 2003, and Democrat Phil Bredesen, the former governor of the state, are running to replace senator Bob Corker, who is retiring this year. Though Bredesen led the polls for much of 2018, Blackburn has taken the lead in recent months.
Blackburn has a polarizing record on tech. She has been called “Big Telecom’s best friend in Congress,” thanks to her repeated efforts to ease regulation on telecom companies. She fought against the Federal Communication Commission’s attempts to pave the way for municipal broadband programs in rural parts of the country under the Obama administration. As chair of the House Communication and Technology Subcommittee, she supported the current FCC’s decision to overturn net neutrality protections.
Her record on privacy is also mixed. She introduced the House bill last year to overturn Obama-era protections that required broadband providers to get permission before selling peoples’ internet browsing history. But once that repeal was successful, she introduced the so-called BROWSER Act, which would restore those protections, the only difference being that the Federal Trade Commission would oversee enforcement instead of the FCC. That bill hasn’t progressed in the House.
If all of that didn’t already make her a controversial figure in tech circles, there’s her recent comments about bias in Silicon Valley. She accused Twitter of conservative censorship, after the company took down an ad of hers that charged Planned Parenthood with selling “baby body parts.” She alleged liberal bias at Google, too, following a Breitbart report that said one Google staffer called her a “terrorist” and a “violent thug” in internal emails. In June, she issued a warning shot against tech companies in an op-ed for Fox News. “Big Tech should take time to remember that although this light touch regulatory environment allowed them to flourish, they do not have a blank check,” she wrote.
Josh Hawley in Missouri’s Senate Race
Missouri’s Republican attorney general Josh Hawley is taking on Democrat Claire McCaskill for her Senate seat. It’s a seat Democrats desperately want to hold onto, but as it stands, Hawley is a few points ahead. That could spell bad news for Google, Facebook, and other tech giants. As attorney general, Hawley was responsible for launching an antitrust investigation into Google’s business practices. The investigation sought answers as to how the search giant collects user data and whether it leverages its market position to push its own products.
Hawley also launched an investigation into Facebook’s data-sharing practices, after tens of millions of Americans’ Facebook data was misappropriated by the political firm Cambridge Analytica, and another into Equifax after its historic data breach last year. And just this fall, Missouri got a $2.2 million slice of a nationwide settlement with Uber over its data breach, which was being investigated by Hawley’s office. He’s campaigned on a promise of being tough on tech. If Hawley heads to Washington, he could join with some Democratic colleagues as an antitrust and privacy watchdog.
Bill Nelson in Florida’s Senate Race
Bill Nelson defending his seat against Republican governor Rick Scott in a tight race. As the ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee, Nelson has helped oversee recent congressional hearings on, among other things, protecting consumer privacy. If he loses next week, the title of ranking member could fall to someone like Amy Klobuchar or Richard Blumenthal, both of whom have been much more vocal about tech policy. Klobuchar introduced a data privacy bill that would increase transparency in data collection and tracking. She also introduced the Honest Ads Act, which proposed new transparency requirements on digital political ads.
Blumenthal, meanwhile, co-sponsored the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA, which was signed into law earlier this year, despite widespread backlash from the tech industry. And in a recent Commerce Committee hearing, he voiced support for California’s recently passed data privacy law, which tech giants have been working hard to gut. Either one of these senators in a leadership role on the committee would signal a bold privacy stance for Democrats—even bolder if Democrats pull off the unlikely feat of winning back the Senate.
Ted Cruz in Texas’s Senate Race
On election night, all eyes will be on Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat who has waged an unexpectedly successful fight against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. If O’Rourke wins in a bright red state like Texas, where he is still about six points behind, it will be a big win for Democrats. Tech giants might also breathe a sigh of relief.
Cruz was never tight with big tech, but lately, their relationship has been particularly strained. In a recent debate against O’Rourke, Cruz toyed with the idea of repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects tech companies from being held accountable for what their users say on their platforms. Cruz isn’t the only member of Congress who has floated this idea; so have members of the House. (Experts say these proposals are based on a flawed interpretation of Section 230.) Meanwhile, during a recent congressional hearing, Cruz also pointedly questioned Google’s chief privacy officer on the company’s interest in building a censored search engine for China, as well as its decision to pull out of a Department of Defense machine learning contract.
O’Rourke, on the other hand, comes from a tech background. Before entering politics, he started his own software and web development firm. He has advocated for stronger antitrust regulations as part of his economic platform, but his campaign has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from individuals and groups associated with Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. In fact, he’s raised more from Alphabet than any other candidate this cycle. Just how O’Rourke would handle tech’s tremendous power is still unclear. But one thing’s for sure: His campaign sure loves Facebook ads: it has spent more than $5 million on them since May.
Will Hurd in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District Race
Representative Will Hurd joined Congress in 2015 after a career at the Central Intelligence Agency and as an adviser to a cybersecurity firm. That makes Hurd one of the House’s most tech-savvy members, and in his short time on Capitol Hill, he’s put that background to use. As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Information Technology, Hurd has convened hearings on issues like cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. He’s also introduced bills that would elevate the role of the nation’s chief information officer and modernize government technology. Last year, President Trump signed the Modernizing Government Technology Act into law. Now, Hurd is seeking reelection against a tough challenge from Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, an Iraq War veteran.
Keith Ellison in Minnesota’s Attorney General Race
Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison is making a bid for Minnesota’s attorney general seat. His campaign has been dogged by allegations of domestic violence, which Ellison has denied, but which may have caused Ellison to lose ground in the polls. His opponent, Doug Wardlow, looks poised to win. But if Ellison does become attorney general, the tech industry could be looking at even more state-driven antitrust activity. As a member of Congress, Ellison is part of the newly formed Antitrust Caucus and introduced a House bill that would require the FTC and Department of Justice to conduct annual studies on company mergers. He has reserved particularly harsh criticism for Amazon, saying in a podcast last year that “Amazon has gotten where it is because it has undertaken business practices… that previously used to be illegal.”
Ellison is just one of many Democrats vying for an attorney general seat: There are 30 up for grabs this year; 18 are held by Republicans and 12 by Democrats. While the House and Senate get the lion’s share of attention, these races are worth watching, too. If Democrats pick up more seats, tech monopolies could find themselves with a far less friendly landscape of state regulators next year.
Josh Harder in California’s 10th Congressional District
In his bid to represent California’s 10th congressional district, Democrat Josh Harder has raised money from some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent investors: Sam Altman, John Doerr, Ron Conway, and Rob Stavis, to name a few. That stands to reason, since Harder used to be one of them. The 32-year-old political neophyte is a former vice president at Bessemer Venture Partners, a Menlo Park venture capital firm with investments in tech giants like Pinterest, LinkedIn, Skype, and Yelp. Harder’s opponent, Republican incumbent Jeff Denham, has capitalized on the techlash in political ads, framing Harder as “a shady San Francisco venture capitalist.” Right now, the race is considered a toss-up. If Harder wins, he might help Democrats win back the House. He might also help represent the tech industry’s interests in Washington.
The Proposition C Ballot Initiative in San Francisco
Any policy proposal that pits tech’s billionaires against one another is certainly worth watching. A ballot initiative in San Francisco called Proposition C is one. Earlier this month, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey squared off on Twitter over the proposition, which would levy a 0.175 percent to 0.69 percent tax on companies with over $50 million in gross annual receipts to raise money to address the homelessness crisis in San Francisco. All in, the tax would raise $300 million, which would go toward refurbishing and constructing housing units, as well as mental health services, among other things. Benioff has thrown his full support behind the initiative, while Dorsey says that he stands with local officials, including San Francisco’s mayor, who oppose it.
For Benioff, the equation is simple: San Francisco’s tech barons, including himself, have amassed unprecedented wealth while the city continues to struggle with homelessness. “We cannot separate ourselves from others,” he recently told WIRED. “We have to get back to the feeling that we’re one, and that we are responsible for the city that we are living in and growing our businesses in.”
And yet, Mayor London Breed says that Proposition C could only exacerbate the problem. She argues that the proposal lacks accountability, that it fails to audit the money the city is already spending on homelessness, and that it could make San Francisco’s crisis worse if the city begins to foot the bill for homeless citizens in neighboring counties. She has also argued that the proposal would hurt the local economy, causing up to a $240 million loss from the city’s GDP every year for the next twenty years. Critics have accused Breed of being bought by the wealthy techies who financed her mayoral campaign, including Dorsey’s Twitter co-founder Ev Williams.
Dorsey, meanwhile, has other motives beyond standing by the mayor. The Twitter CEO is also head of the payments company, Square. In a recent tweetstorm, Dorsey argued that payment processors like Square and Stripe, which also opposes Proposition C, would be taxed at a higher rate than companies like Salesforce. That’s because they’d be taxed on total revenue, some of which they share with credit card companies, rather than adjusted revenue—the amount Square gets to keep.
Voices on both sides of the debate say that helping San Francisco’s homeless is their first priority. Now, it’s up to voters to decide who wins.
The California Governor’s race
Speaking of San Francisco, the former mayor of the city, Gavin Newsom, will likely become the next governor of California this election night. The Democrat and current lieutenant governor maintains a solid lead against his opponent John Cox. Newsom has also indicated that he’s against Proposition C, saying that the homelessness problem is a regional issue, not just a city-wide one, and must be addressed at the state level. If Proposition C does pass, neither the governor nor the state legislature will be able to do anything about it; changing the law would require another ballot referendum. Still, as governor, Newsom would set the agenda for the state’s economy—an economy that’s larger than most countries, and one that hinges on Big Tech.