Big Tech firms stealthily seek influence in Biden-Harris administration

Source: Reuters Published: 2020/12/22 18:08:39

Silicon Valley is working behind the scenes to secure senior roles for tech allies in lesser-known but still vital parts of president-elect Joe Biden's administration, even as the pushback against Big Tech from progressive groups and regulators grows.

Bdien Photo: VCG

The Biden transition team has already stacked its agency review teams with more tech executives than tech critics. It has also added to its staff several officials from Big Tech companies, which emerged as top donors to the campaign.

Now, executives and employees at tech companies such as Alphabet Inc-owned Google, Inc, Facebook Inc, Microsoft Corp are pushing to place candidates in senior roles at government agencies, according to four sources with knowledge of the matter.

Many company executives still have a huge commercial interest in pushing candidates with industry ties at the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission - both of which are investigating Big Tech's alleged market misconduct. 

Facebook and Microsoft declined comment. 

Amazon's public policy and communications chief Jay Carney told Reuters that Amazon is not trying to get anyone from the company placed in the new administration. "Any suggestion to the contrary is completely false," Carney said.

Google spokesman Jose Castaneda said "as a company, we make no recommendations and are unaware of any such communications."

A general view of Silicon Valley in northern California, the US Photo: VCG

'Bad optics'

Researchers, lawyers and consultants tracking the transition or working with the team told Reuters the moves are part of an effort by many large tech company officials to influence future policymaking. They are also making sure the Biden administration is not captive to the ideas of progressive Democrats and a growing anti-monopoly movement.

"In 2020, appointing the CEO or top executives of a tech company directly in to your cabinet is bad optics and bad politics," said Max Moran, a researcher with the Revolving Door Project. He added that allies of Big Tech have begun to emerge as candidates for Biden jobs.

For example, Google's former Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, a billionaire who is a Silicon Valley titan, has been making personnel recommendations for appointments to the Department of Defense - as the company tries to pursue military contracts and defense work, according to three sources.

Schmidt chairs the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI). His vice chairman on the commission, former deputy secretary of defense Robert Work, has briefed the Biden transition team on national security issues. Schmidt's name has also come up in discussions to lead a Biden White House technology task force, a suggestion opposed by progressives, according to three sources.

One of the names Schmidt has floated for a senior defense department role is Christopher Kirchhoff, a former aide to the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff under the Obama administration who currently works at Schmidt Futures, two sources said. 

Schmidt has also pushed for Jared Cohen, chief executive of Jigsaw, a tech incubator that operates as an independent unit under Google, for a role inside the State or Defense, according to two sources. 

A spokeswoman for Eric Schmidt declined comment. A NSCAI spokeswoman said any work being done by Schmidt and Work in their personal capacity is not associated with the NSCAI.

Similarly, two Amazon officials have landed spots on the president-elect's agency review teams for the State Department and the Office of Management and Budget.

Now, executives with Amazon are pushing allies for roles inside the Biden administration, according to sources who work with the transition. Names that have emerged as a result include Indra Nooyi, former chairwoman of Pepsi, who now sits on Amazon's board and whose name has been floated to run the Commerce Department, three sources said.

Facebook, unlike the other companies, has already made significant inroads into the Biden transition team, multiple sources said.

Former Facebook director Jessica Hertz is the Biden transition's general counsel. Austin Lin, a former program manager at Facebook, is on an agency review team for the Executive Office of the President. Erskine Bowles, a former Facebook board member, is already advising the transition team, along with Jeff Zients, another former Facebook board member, who has been picked to become Biden's COVID-19 czar.

Another ally for some large tech companies is Biden's pick for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who has ties with both Amazon and Google, according to four sources. Google was a client at WestExec Advisors, which was founded by Blinken. Blinken also helped Amazon's public policy and communications chief Jay Carney get hired into Joe Biden's media team in 2008. Google's Castaneda said the company's relationship with West Exec lasted one month in 2018 and the company did not retain any member of the firm. Carney declined comment. WestExec Advisors declined comment. Blinken did not respond to requests for comment.

Four sources said names floated by tech companies have been discussed during meetings held by the Biden transition's agency review teams. These teams have made several hiring recommendations, they said.

In November, 32 antitrust, consumer advocacy, labor and related groups sent a letter to Biden asking him to reject the influence of Big Tech companies on his administration.
Newspaper headline: Silicon secrecy

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