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Silicon Valley A Punching Bag For Presidential Hopefuls

U.S. presidential candidates have long come to Silicon Valley to raise money

Silicon Valley, president, candidates, politics
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg campaigns in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., August 27, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson. U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg campaigns in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., August 27, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson. U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg campaigns in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., August 27, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson. VOA

U.S. presidential candidates have long come to Silicon Valley to raise money and, with a tech company campus as a backdrop, talk about innovation and the future. But, it has now become a punching bag for them.

But this year, things are different.

The 2020 presidential candidates are contending with the so-called “tech-lash,” the populist backlash against “Big Tech” over a host of issues, including data leaks, wealth accumulation, alleged erosion of worker rights, claims of censorship of conservative voices and concerns about the proliferation of extreme speech online.

Some political hopefuls are part of the tech-lash.

Silicon Valley, president, candidates, politics
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., gestures while speaking at the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, in San Francisco. More than a dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls are making… VOA

Recently, Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, joined protesters outside Uber’s headquarters arguing for a new California bill that would make contract workers, like Uber drivers, employees. Other candidates, such as Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, have also come out for the legislative measure.

Sanders has attacked technological innovations for upending local journalism and for what he calls biased policing, such as facial recognition technology. Warren says she would like to break up some of the tech giants.

“The area around these giants is referred to by venture capitalists investors as the ‘dead zone,’” Warren said during a CNN event. “You try to start up a business, you run the risk that Amazon steps in front of you or Google steps in front of you or buys you out before you get started.”

California senator

As California’s attorney general, Harris raised the issue of the lack of privacy policies on apps. So far, she has not made the tech industry a big issue in her national campaign.

But that may change.

When asked about the growth of companies such as Facebook, Harris told CNN, “There is no question in my mind that there needs to be serious regulation. … There needs to be more oversight; that has not been happening.”

Trump and Silicon Valley

President Donald Trump has led the way in puncturing tech’s one-time white hat image, hitting the industry hard on a range of issues, including allegedly censoring conservative voices online. He recently falsely claimed that Google manipulated votes.

But some candidates don’t want to mimic Trump’s style of conflict when it comes to tech.

When asked about the idea of breaking up Facebook, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said, “That sounds more like a Donald Trump kind of thing.”

He added, “We do not need a president that is going to use their own personal beliefs and tell you which companies we should break up. … We need a president that’s going to enforce antitrust laws in this country, and I will be that person.”

Silicon Valley, president, candidates, politics
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., gestures while speaking at the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, in San Francisco. More than a dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls are making their… VOA

Big tech — good or bad for America?

All this negative attention puts the tech industry in a bind, unsure which potential presidential hopeful might be an ally, said Lanhee Chen, who was head of policy for Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.

“Certainly there are still people who believe in the value of technology companies, who understand tech as an important industry, an important contributor to the economy,” Chen said. “But increasingly I think people’s views have become more nuanced. And unfortunately, for the technology companies, in many cases, more negative.”

There’s a danger, however, in attacking tech, said Donnie Fowler, a longtime Democratic consultant and now an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco.

“The Democratic presidential candidates can’t come to Silicon Valley and attack technology and innovation broadly,” Fowler said. “You can’t come here and say that everything Silicon Valley is doing is bad for the country, bad for the economy, bad for Americans. Americans don’t even believe that.”

Tech CEO, employee divide

Campaign contributions offer a snapshot of the candidates and their relationship to the tech industry.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, contributions from workers at Alphabet, the parent company of Google, or the organizations’ political action committee, were the highest contributors to Buttigieg and Warren.

In contrast, tech executives have given to Democrat moderates such as Booker and former Vice President and Democratic front-runner Joe Biden, both of whom have not made tech much of an issue, according to CNBC.

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YouTube recommendation algorithm

Max Kaehn, a Google software engineer, who has donated to Warren and other candidates, said he welcomes politicians who criticize his employer and other tech giants.

“With great power comes great responsibility and the tech companies have great power. We should get some scrutiny over it,” he said.

Some areas to look at, Kaehn said, is Amazon’s treatment of its warehouse workers, Facebook’s use of data and YouTube, which is owned by his employer, Alphabet.

“I think we should be talking about the YouTube recommendation algorithm,” he said.

While YouTube’s algorithm hasn’t come up in the Democratic presidential debates, observers say issues like these, once seen as esoteric or niche, may become front and center, reflecting the country’s ambivalence about the growing role of technology in their lives. (VOA)

Next Story

2019 Was a Year of Climate Change Activism

Hungary Climate Protest
Following the call of Fridays For Future Hungary and Extinction Rebellion Hungary young environmentalists demonstrate to demand measures against climate change in Budapest, Hungary. VOA

By Jamie Dettmer

2019 was the year of Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and an uptick in climate action pledges by governments across the globe.

From Britain to Germany, Europe’s mainstream party leaders scrambled to respond to a surge in electoral support for Green parties — and to growing public anxiety about the possible impact of climate change.

During European Parliament elections in June, 48 percent of voters identified climate change as their top worry. Opinion polls in Germany for some weeks of 2019 put the Greens ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s storied Christian Democratic Party, which, along with its junior partner in the country’s governing coalition, has been racing to sharpen climate policies.

Greta Thunberg climate
15-year-old Swedish girl Greta Thunberg holds a placard reading “School strike for the climate” during a manifestation against climate change outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, Sweden. VOA

British move

In Britain, the ruling Conservatives announced a hugely ambitious carbon reduction plan, enshrining into law a pledge to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, making Britain the first major economy to do so. Some smaller countries, including Finland and Norway, are earmarking dates earlier than 2050 to become net-zero greenhouse gas producers, but so far have not made their goals legally binding.

In America, an alliance of 24 states and Puerto Rico promised to uphold the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate action, despite the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the international pact.

Shouldn’t all these plans and pledges be music to ears of climate action activists and scientists?

Apparently not. On the eve of Christmas, Thunberg tweeted: “I hear many say 2019 was the year when the public woke up to the climate crisis. This is a misconception. A small but rapidly growing number of people have started to wake up to the climate crisis. This has only just begun. We’re still only scratching the surface.”

For Thunberg, her guardians and loyalists, change can’t come fast enough, however wrenching and dislocating it might be. Governments aren’t doing enough and are failing to count their emissions accurately, they complain, and corporations are dragging their feet.

For activists, December’s Madrid climate change conference epitomized the foot-dragging and a failure to be truly aspirational in cutting emissions. For Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion activists in Britain and Australia, the key task for the Madrid gathering was to unveil ambitious new goals — and fossil-fuel-dependent countries, notably Brazil and Australia, flunked it, they say.

The COP 25 conference center is seen in Madrid. VOA

Rich vs. poor

The rift between wealthy, developed nations and poorer, developing nations over who is going to pay for reducing greenhouse gas emissions also remained as wide as ever. And governments in Madrid stalled on agreeing on new regulations for carbon markets and the trading of carbon permits between countries for the offsetting of emissions, one of the most critical and contentious issues at the climate change conference.

“In Madrid, the key polluting countries responsible for 80 percent of the world’s climate-wrecking emissions stood mute, while smaller countries announced they’ll work to drive down harmful emissions in the coming year,” said Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S.-based climate action advocacy group. “World leaders dithered instead of taking stronger, critical action soon to reduce the global climate threat. They ignored dire scientific reports, worsening evidence of climate destruction and demands from millions of young people to protect their future.”

For others, though, the Madrid conference symbolized how politically complicated it will be to deliver climate action — a complexity activists ignore and glide over, some analysts warn. The venue for the conference itself spoke to that. The meeting was scheduled to be held in Chile, but it had to be switched to Spain because of riots in the Latin American country over a “Green” hike in transit fares.

And it wasn’t only in Chile that protesters were taking to the streets to complain about expensive Green policies that could make living standards plunge. In France, the Yellow Vests, drawn mainly from small towns, persisted with their demonstrations against the government of French President Emmanuel Macron, an agitation triggered initially by the imposition of higher eco-taxes on fuel.

The year 2019 also saw strong resistance in Germany from motorists, as a well as automakers, to planned higher fuel prices and an abrupt shift to electric cars — yet another front in a political backlash to climate action.

Climate Europe Coal
Smoke rises from chimneys of the Turow power plant located by the Turow lignite coal mine near the town of Bogatynia, Poland. VOA

Tricky politics

For governments, even environmentally friendly ones, climate change poses a massive political dilemma, and 2019 brought that home. Impose the tax hikes and costly regulations scientists say are needed to lower emissions and move economies away from dependency on fossil fuels, and governments risk prompting a backlash, largely from lower-income workers and pensioners, who can ill afford to bear the expense.

The alternative is to move slowly and risk blowback from climate action activists and their supporters among largely middle class and higher-income groups able to adapt with less hardship. Squaring the circle between those who demand fast-track climate-friendly measures and those who want to slow down and mitigate the impact of moving toward a low-carbon future isn’t going to be easy, say analysts.

In Europe, Central European governments sense the acute political danger to them and have been resisting a European Union plan to join Britain in earmarking 2050 as the year the bloc has to be “net zero.”

Poland has been especially vociferous in opposition. The country is heavily dependent on coal for its energy needs and more than a quarter-million Polish jobs are tied to the fossil fuel industry. Without coal, many towns in Poland will have no economic raison d’être. “You can’t expect Poland to leap to zero carbon in 30 years,” according to Marchin Nowak, a coal industry executive.

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While smaller developing countries fret that they will bear too much of the burden of climate action compared with richer nations, so, too, do those who already feel left behind in developed countries, fearing the costs and benefits of climate action will be unfairly placed on their shoulders. 2019 saw the opening salvos in this new political war over environmentalism. (VOA)