Subscriber OnlyTechnology

Can Big Tech’s backing install Biden in the White House?

Net Results: The Democratic candidate has support of tech industry and its biggest critics

Until recently, US presidential candidate Joe Biden's campaign had offered only random signals as to its position on most of the major technology-related issues in the United States and internationally. But, as the presidential contest has galloped into its final weeks, the picture is coming more into focus – albeit in a totally contradictory way.

On the one hand, there’s now plenty of evidence that many of the best-known names in technology, as well as tech workers as a whole, overwhelmingly support Biden.

But then, so do many of those public figures looking to rein in and reform Big Tech.

Over the summer, the Biden campaign indicated a few of the directions it might take if the candidate made it to the White House. Biden came out in support of net neutrality in July – a stance widely welcomed by the technology industry and internet campaigners. That's in opposition to the Trump administration's roll-back, via its appointed Federal Communications Commission, of Obama-era protections.

Biden also stated in the summer that he supported US green card immigration schemes and, in particular, the long-standing H1-B immigrant visa that has brought millions of immigrants in to work in the US technology industry.

Trump has aimed to close down immigration visas, and froze the H1-B programme in April, arguing such visas take jobs away from Americans – even though, for decades, US universities have not produced anywhere near the number of qualified STEM graduates, especially in hard sciences, that the industry needs.

Biden’s stance was welcomed by industry as well as by those in higher education, whose graduate and high level research programmes attract postgraduates from abroad.

Billion-dollar companies

Many of the industry’s successful companies were founded or co-founded by former H1-B holders, with first-generation immigrants accounting for 51 per cent of the US tech industry’s billion-dollar companies, according to a 2016 study.

Now, as election day rapidly closes in, the tech industry has proclaimed its support for Biden via campaign backing, fundraisers and direct donations which far outstrip those it has given to Trump.

Wired magazine ran a story earlier this month headlined “Silicon Valley opens its wallet for Joe Biden”, in which its analysis showed 95 per cent of tech industry employees’ campaign contributions went to Biden.

Looking at employees from six companies – Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Oracle – Wired found that they had given 20 times as much to Biden as to Trump since the start of 2019 – $4,787,752 to Biden compared to a mere $239,527 to Trump, according to statistics from the US Federal Elections Commission.

Oracle is the outlier, with 20 per cent of employee donations going to Trump, compared to less than 10 per cent at the other firms.

And last month, a stellar roster of two dozen tech industry figures, all of whom have won the prestigious Turing Award (known as the Nobel prize of computer science), wrote a letter publicly endorsing Biden. A main reason cited is Biden’s stance on immigration.

“Information technology is thoroughly globalised,” the statement begins, adding that “academic computer science departments attract talented students, many of whom immigrate and become American inventors and captains of industry”.

Some of the tech industry’s biggest critics also stepped forward in support of Biden.

Online fundraiser

Last week, an email invitation went out to Biden supporters for an online fundraiser spearheaded by figures such as US senator and former presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who made regulation and antitrust control of Big Tech one of her most prominent campaign issues.

Alongside her for the fundraiser is notable thorn-in-Facebook's-side Roger McNamee, one of the most significant early investors in Facebook and a former close adviser to its CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg. Now, he is a prominent detractor, arguing that the company is a serious risk to privacy and democracy. In 2019, he published the best-selling book Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. Other Big Tech foes also feature on the programme.

While not overly demonstrative on the issue, Biden has voiced his own concern with social media and the incredible power of the big tech platforms.

What do these opposing support trajectories mean? Well, it isn’t all that strange, really.

Whatever about their sometimes more libertarian-leaning company leaders, tech employees as a whole are relatively young, and younger voters overwhelmingly vote Democrat. And of course, employees have indicated they support some of the reforms proposed for their own industry and even their own employers.

For their own part, tech company leaders want to have a persuasive voice at the policy table, and some will certainly be trying to get their firms a seat there by making sure they are visible supporters at rallies and fundraisers.

But the tech reformers also want their say, and one of the best ways to do that in politics, as always, is to be visible, raise funds, and get out the vote for a candidate.

Will it all pay off in a Biden election? Maybe we’ll know this time next week.