Democrats slam consolidation and power in Big Tech during presidential debate

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren at a rally in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Democrats running for president in 2020 spent nearly 15 minutes debating Big Tech during the latest debate Thursday, the most time the issue has earned in any of the debates thus far.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up big tech companies sparked the debate, but it soon evolved into a broader discussion of competition, antitrust law, and the power corporate America wields.

Notably, the candidates did not dive deep on some of the tech issues weighing on voters, like how their personal data is used or perceived political bias.

The conversation was telling in that it revealed the spectrum of perspectives the candidates have on America’s technology industry.

“You get to be the umpire in the baseball game or you get to have a team but you don’t get to do both at the same time,” Warren said, repeating a common refrain she uses to explain her Big Tech proposal. “We need to enforce our antitrust laws, break up these giant companies that are dominating Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Oil, all of them.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders sang a similar tone, calling for “a president who has the guts to appoint an attorney general who will take on these huge monopolies, protect small business, and protect consumers.”

Previously: Waiting for Elizabeth Warren: Why breaking up big tech hasn’t become a big campaign issue

Former business leader Andrew Yang, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Cory Booker, and others took a more measured approach, calling for stronger enforcement of antitrust laws without supporting Warren’s plan to unwind previous acquisitions.

“Treat [Facebook] like the publisher that they are,” O’Rourke said. “That’s what I will do as president and we will be unafraid to break up big businesses if we have to do that, 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.”

Yang made the case for leaving some big tech companies intact, taking a swing at Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, in the process.

“There are absolutely excesses in technology and in some cases, having them divest parts of their businesses is the right move, but we also have to be realistic that competition doesn’t solve all the problems,” Yang said. “It’s not like any of us wants to use the fourth-best navigation app. That would be like cruel and unusual punishment. There’s a reason why no one is using Bing today. Sorry Microsoft. It’s true.”

Sen. Kamala Harris and Warren sparred when Harris brought up her call for Twitter to deactivate Trump for violating the platform’s terms. Harris accused Warren of focusing too narrowly on a select group of companies without applying the same standards across the industry.

“It does not represent a system of justice to say that the rules will apply differently to different people,” Harris said. “This is a matter, you are saying, of holding big tech accountable because they have an outsized influence on people’s perceptions about issues and they influence behaviors. We all have to agree this is their power. It is immense. What I’m trying to is that, it seems to me that you would be able to join me in saying that the rule has to apply to Twitter the same way it does to Facebook.”

Warren countered saying she does “think all of the rules should apply across the board.”

“I don’t have a problem with that,” Warren said.

Another pattern is emerging among the candidates and politicians outside the race. While many of them say a number of tech companies need to be reined in, Amazon often gets namechecked more than its peers.

“About 8 percent, 9 percent of all retail sales happen in the bricks and sticks stores, happen at Walmart,” Warren said. “About 49 percent of all sales online happened in one place. That’s Amazon. It collects information from every little business and then Amazon does something else. It runs the platform, gets all the information, and then goes into competition with those little businesses.”

The latest analysis from eMarketer actually places Amazon’s share of online sales at just under 40 percent.

Yang, Warren, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro were also critical of Amazon during the debate.

Castro accused Amazon of “leveraging its size to help put small businesses out of business and then at the same time, shortchanging a lot of his workers.”

“We need to take a stronger stance when it comes to cracking down on monopolist and trade practices and that’s what I would do as president,” Castro said.

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