In the summer of 2012, a lawyer working for Kamala Harris, who was attorney general of California at the time, addressed a policy question that would loom large in the years to come: What approach should the government take when it comes to regulating Facebook?
The answer, as conveyed by Harris’ office, was “more friend than foe.”
Harris had just announced that her office was launching a new Privacy Unit meant to “hold accountable those who misuse technology” and “enforce laws regulating the collection, retention, disclosure, and destruction” of personal data. The unit was intended to fill a void left by a state-run privacy office that had lost its funding in the midst of a budget crisis.
Facebook was worried. In California, the company still had the halo of a fast-growing, wealth-generating startup. But at the federal level, Facebook was under scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission, an investigation that would eventually cost the company $5 billion.
Less than a week after Harris announced the Privacy Unit, Will Castleberry, a lobbyist for Facebook, met with Robert Morgester, the senior attorney from Harris’ office who would lead the new regulatory unit. According to an internal Facebook email summarizing the meeting, which has not been previously reported on, Morgester assured Castleberry that Facebook had nothing to fear:
“The meeting went well and we were left with several useful assurances about the AG’s intentions — the most important being that they view Facebook as a good actor and they will keep communications with us open (we will not unknowingly be the subject of an investigation).”
“Oh wow, that’s in writing?” said a former senior Harris aide who worked in the attorney general’s office, when told of the email. “It’s a little bit explosive. Kamala’s weak on the tech stuff…. She clearly wasn’t on the case.” (The email, marked “highly confidential,” was buried among thousands of pages of court-sealed documents that leaked in 2019.)
It’s not uncommon for regulators to have informal conversations with representatives from the companies they oversee. Jamie Radice, a representative for Facebook, told Insider the meeting was routine. “As is common with state attorneys general offices, we simply noted that we hoped to keep the lines of communication open and work with them if they had concerns,” she said. Morgester also downplayed the meeting’s significance. “I am basically making nice,” he told Insider. “I am making promises that have nothing behind them.”
But two independent legal experts consulted by Insider said the exchange, as described by Castleberry’s email, went far beyond normal regulatory practice. Bruce Green, who leads the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham Law School, called it “misleading or irresponsible to promise not to initiate an investigation without first telling the company.” And Melba Pearson, who cochairs the prosecution function committee of the American Bar Association, said the meeting as described was “inappropriate” and “problematic.”
“How does it look if this company winds up being a donor to an attorney general’s campaign?” Pearson said. “That looks terrible, like they’ve purchased access to justice, or purchased their way out of accountability and transparency.” Facebook and its executives, in fact, donated $20,100 to Harris’ reelection fund from 2012 to 2014.
A few months after Harris’ privacy chief praised Facebook as a “good actor,” up to 87 million Facebook users had their private friend lists and likes sucked up — without their knowledge or consent — by a third-party app developer. The data was then given to a political-consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica, which mined the information to build millions of psychological voter profiles that were secretly used in an attempt to influence the 2016 election. (A representative for Harris declined to comment for this story.)
The notion that Facebook was one of the good guys when it came to data privacy was reflected in the approach Harris took to her job. As the chief law-enforcement officer of California, she was armed with some of the nation’s most formidable tools to protect personal data and safeguard consumers from anticompetitive behavior. But during her tenure, she essentially allowed the world’s wealthiest and most powerful platforms to regulate themselves. From 2012 to 2016, Facebook was subject to no enforcement actions by the Privacy Unit or any other department in the attorney general’s office. Nor was Google, Amazon,
, or Apple. “A lot of companies are headquartered here,” Travis LeBlanc, Harris’ chief technology advisor, explained at the time. “We want to make sure the consumers are protected, and industry is protected as well.”
Harris’ industry-friendly approach to Silicon Valley embodies the internal conflict that Democrats face in the age of Big Tech. Like the party itself, Harris has relied on a steady stream of campaign contributions from tech giants, and her family and staff are closely intertwined with the industry. And like the party, she has taken only superficial measures to hold Silicon Valley accountable for violating consumer privacy and amplifying inflammatory speech. During the 2020 campaign, for instance, she called on Twitter to deplatform President Donald Trump, while largely ignoring the role that Facebook played in putting him in the White House in the first place. If Harris becomes the standard-bearer for Democrats after President Joe Biden, the party is unlikely to address the tech industry’s unparalleled concentration of power, and the ways it has been used to undermine democracy, for fear of alienating some of the party’s most influential allies.
“She was very close with Silicon Valley, which is troubling,” said Jamie Court, the president of Consumer Watchdog, a California nonprofit that tried and failed to win Harris’ backing for pro-privacy legislation. “If the California attorney general isn’t going to be aggressive with Silicon Valley, then no one is. They’re the top cop on that street. But that was her style. She had no interest at all in taking them on.”
Early in her career, Harris was known in San Francisco’s entrepreneurial community as the rare politician who actually understood the world of tech. “She knew her stuff,” Craig Newmark, the Craigslist founder and philanthropist, told Insider. He recalled sitting down with Harris in her office during her years as San Francisco’s district attorney to discuss the benefits of open-standard email systems. “From talking to people in tech and policy circles, I had some idea that she was good at technology,” he said. “But I underestimated her acumen.”
At the time, technology was still a beloved local industry in the Bay Area, one that was making a lot of people very rich. In 2008, when Harris announced her run for attorney general, Silicon Valley stepped up to help her get elected. Among her early supporters was John Doerr, a member of Google’s board of directors and the chairman of Kleiner Perkins, the prominent San Francisco venture-capital firm. Kleiner’s early investments in AOL, Netflix, Amazon, and Google had made it the VC equivalent of Goldman Sachs. Doerr, who had boosted Al Gore’s presidential run, had established himself as a key link between Silicon Valley and Washington. “I’m a networker,” he told Wired. “I recruit teams of entrepreneurs to make companies grow. Politics works the same way — but instead of building a product, you’re advancing a point of view.”
Harris, meanwhile, was building a fundraising network. Kleiner employees gave $21,500 to her campaign. Jony Ive and Chris Espinosa from Apple gave $22,800. David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, gave $13,000. After Facebook’s general counsel, Chris Kelly, lost to Harris by a wide margin in the Democratic primary, the company became a major source of campaign funding for Harris. Craigslist’s Newmark, who also donated to Harris, said his financial support was a function of his high regard for Harris, whom he describes as “smart and fair.”
As California’s attorney general, Harris was quick to take on the country’s
a visit to the company’s headquarters in 2010. “I’ve been wanting to come because I want these relationships and I want to cultivate them.”over the financial wreckage of the mortgage crisis. She formed a Mortgage Fraud Strike Force and negotiated a $20 billion settlement for Californians. But when it came to the Big Tech platforms, she took a hands-off approach. She didn’t use her office’s antitrust authority to stop Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp, which took place on her watch, and she declined to join a federal antitrust lawsuit against Google over its anticompetitive business practices. “I’ve been wanting to come to the Google campus for a year and a half,” she gushed to a group of Google employees during
Despite Harris’ coziness with the industry, her fluency in the details of tech policy helped convince Bay Area privacy advocates that she was sympathetic to their concerns. “She was one of the first state AGs who really looked hard at privacy issues,” said Marc Rotenberg, a cofounder of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which gave Harris its Champion of Freedom award in 2015. “I think she earned it.” Her signature accomplishment in tech was persuading Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft to require publicly accessible privacy policies for any app hosted on their platforms. “I can’t imagine any one of them signing such an agreement with a law-enforcement agency today,” LeBlanc, Harris’ tech advisor at the time, told me. “Certainly not that entire group.” Harris, along with dozens of other state attorneys general, also pushed Google on some privacy issues, though she did not endorse an effort by her counterpart in Mississippi to enforce a sweeping subpoena of the company’s search practices.
Harris was quick to take on the country’s biggest banks over the mortgage crisis, negotiating a $20 billion settlement for Californians. But when it came to Big Tech, she took a hands-off approach.
It was five weeks after Facebook joined Harris’ privacy agreement when her privacy chief, Morgester, praised the company as a “good actor.” Asked by Insider to explain his meeting with Facebook, Morgester emphasized that the attorney general’s office was facing drastic budget cuts. In addition to the Privacy Unit, he was heading a new eCrime Unit tasked with identity theft and tech-related criminal cases. The office had to stretch, he said, to keep up with cases in which there were clearly identified victims, let alone the emerging debate over user privacy.
“Facebook was not necessarily going out — not to my knowledge — and committing crimes,” he said. “But individuals were using Facebook to go out and commit crimes, and Facebook was unaware of it. So our primary focus was how do we get information about bad actors who were using any online platform.”
In fact, there were already indications that Facebook itself might qualify as a bad actor. A year earlier, the company had launched its “Sponsored Stories” feature, which took the names and photos of users — without their knowledge — and used them to endorse paid ads that were distributed to their friend networks. A group of users sued, claiming that Sponsored Stories violated a California law banning the nonconsensual use of people’s names or pictures without their consent. Facebook argued in court that the appropriation was legal because the users were newsworthy “celebrities” within their own social networks, despite some of them being young children. The company eventually settled, agreeing to pay $10 to each affected user. When a second group of plaintiffs sued, claiming the settlement was inadequate, Harris’ office refused to take sides, filing a neutral brief on a fine point of state versus federal law.
Harris’ repeated refusal to take on Big Tech endeared her to Silicon Valley. Timothy Draper, a Bay Area venture capitalist known for his investments in everything from Twitter to Tesla, praised Harris and said he’s “hopeful” she would continue to avoid interfering with market forces. “She seems to be a savvy politician,” he said, “and knows when government needs a light touch.”
In those days, Harris was far from the only Democrat who viewed tech giants as the good guys. The industry, after all, seemed to be a vehicle for progressive values. In 2010, as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker touted a $100 million partnership with Mark Zuckerberg to remake the city’s public schools. The following year, in a major speech on the Arab Spring, President Barack Obama praised social media for its capacity to “allow young people to connect and organize.” The first tech-savvy president, Obama enjoyed the support of Eric Schmidt, then the CEO of Google, who gave lavishly to his campaign, appeared alongside him at his first postelection press conference, advised his transition, and met with him privately on several occasions in the Oval Office. The high-profile cases that would expose Big Tech’s erosion of the public sphere — the genocide in Myanmar, Trump’s election, Google’s acquiescence to repressive governments — were still to come.
But it was during Harris’ tenure as attorney general when the tech industry cemented its dominance over so many aspects of American life. And Harris, for the most part, stood by and let it happen. Her approach in the Sponsored Stories case — avoiding any confrontation with tech giants like Facebook, even when they violated the rights of consumers — epitomizes her approach to tech regulation. In a forthcoming book, Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Virginia who worked closely with Harris in those days, highlights her “preference for carrots (incentivizing cooperation) versus sticks (coercive action like enforcement activity).”
Harris built her national profile, in large part, on her campaign against cyber exploitation and revenge porn. Rather than cracking down on the Big Tech platforms, which were enabling users to post salacious, exploitative photos of others without their consent, Harris opted for a collaborative approach, forming a monthly working group that included representatives from Facebook, Google, Instagram, and Kleiner Perkins. In internal documents, Harris’ office referred to the companies as “partners.”
Nathan Barankin, Harris’ former chief of staff, said she used the explicit threat of litigation to nudge tech companies to cooperate on cyber exploitation. “She presented them with a legal theory that said, ‘This is how I will prosecute you under the privacy clause of the state constitution,'” he told Insider. The tactic got results. Three months after Harris convened the working group, Google announced it would de-index search results for nonconsensual intimate images. No longer would exploitative photos appear when prospective employers or new friends ran a search for a victim’s name. “She handled it with such finesse,” said Citron, who worked closely with Harris’ office on the issue. “She never told them they were off the hook.”
Harris’ support from tech platforms blossomed in tandem with the monthly working group. In 2013, she contributed her own “Influencer Story” as part of the rollout for “Lean In,” the best-selling book by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. In 2015, as part of Safer Internet Day, she appeared onstage with Sandberg at Facebook headquarters. By then, Sandberg had already given Harris $5,200 for her Senate run. Four other Facebook employees — including Elliot Schrage, who headed up the company’s policy efforts in Washington — gave Harris $2,700, the legal maximum, as did 14 Google employees and seven from Kleiner Perkins.
By the time Harris arrived in Washington, it was becoming increasingly apparent that Big Tech had a big problem. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Harris was privy to detailed information about the role Facebook played in enabling efforts by Cambridge Analytica and the Russian government to manipulate American voters, without their knowledge, during the 2016 election. The committee’s report on the election also criticized Facebook for withholding crucial information from the FBI about election interference.
When Sandberg testified before the committee, Harris asked her some tough questions, grilling her about how much money Facebook made off ads that ran alongside Russian propaganda. The exchange went viral, making Harris look tough on tech. In one of the most telling moments, Harris pressed Sandberg about the degree to which hate speech was at the core of Facebook’s engagement-driven business model:
Harris: Would you agree that — I think it’s an obvious point — the more people that engage on the platform, the more potential there is for revenue generation for Facebook?
Sandberg: Yes, senator. Only when the content is authentic —
Harris: I appreciate that line. So the concern that many have is how we can reconcile an incentive to create and increase your user engagement when the content that generates a lot of engagement is often inflammatory and hateful. So for example, Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher at Oxford Internet Institute, she says, quote, “The content that’s most misleading or conspiratorial, that’s what’s generating the most discussion and the most engagement and that’s what the algorithm is designed to respond to.”
Harris, it appears, was equally hard on Facebook when the cameras were off. “Her questions in closed session were just as tough, if not tougher, than her questions in open session,” a Democratic aide on the Intelligence Committee told me.
But despite her exposure to some of Facebook’s worst practices, Harris continued to downplay the company’s culpability. In “The Truths We Hold,” her 2019 book designed to help launch her presidential campaign, she gives a detailed account of the 2016 election, describing shadowy threats posed by “Russian agents and propagandists.” Facebook is mentioned just once, alongside Twitter and YouTube, as an unwitting victim of the propaganda campaign. As a senator, Harris also worked to shield from oversight the tech titans she had courted for so long. As The New York Times reported, Harris slow-walked her endorsements of bills to regulate self-driving vehicles and to reduce the legal immunity of internet platforms. She might have been asking tough questions about tech, but she remained reluctant to pursue tough answers.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Harris maintained her laissez-faire approach to tech. Unlike Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, she didn’t endorse using antitrust laws to break up Big Tech companies, insisting that such decisions should be left to the Justice Department. Nor did she push more radical proposals, like Andrew Yang’s plan to empower consumers to actually own their personal data. At a speech to the Detroit NAACP where she called for tech platforms to be held “accountable,” her focus was regulating hateful and violent content, not protecting privacy or curbing monopolistic behavior. Meanwhile, she continued to lean on Silicon Valley for contributions: According to the Revolving Door Project, more than a quarter of her campaign donors were employed by tech — a higher percentage than any other major candidate. Castleberry, the Facebook lobbyist who wrote the “good actor” email, gave $2,700.
But this time, Harris found herself surpassed by the newcomer Pete Buttigieg, whose total donations from employees of Facebook, Apple, Netflix, and Google outpaced hers by almost 50%. “Silicon Valley is very white, extremely white,” said a longtime Bay Area consultant who worked on the 2020 Democratic primary. “It’s not hard to imagine why they loved this nerdy gay guy. He’s one of them.” Like Harris, Buttigieg avoided making any definitive statements about whether the biggest tech companies should be broken up. Harris wound up dropping out of the race in large part because she couldn’t raise enough money to continue.
Still, her long track record with the tech industry served her well. The five-member selection committee Biden named to vet vice-presidential options included his former chief counsel Cynthia Hogan, who was serving as vice president of policy and government at Apple. When Harris was chosen, the move drew effusive praise from the likes of Sandberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, and the tech venture capitalist Reid Hoffman. One fundraiser told Vox that Harris was the “safest pick” for the “Silicon Valley donor community.”
For the moment, many progressive Democrats who were critical of Harris during the primary have gone silent. The last thing they want is to lose influence with an administration that appears to be sympathetic to their concerns. Biden, unlike Harris, has repeatedly used the bully pulpit against Facebook. During the campaign, his spokesperson accused the company of “shredding the fabric of our democracy.” This summer, Biden said Facebook was “killing people” by failing to stop the spread of vaccine disinformation. He nominated antitrust advocates to key positions, including Lina Khan to chair the Federal Trade Commission and Jonathan Kanter to oversee the Justice Department’s antitrust division. He also named Tim Wu, a prominent critic of Big Tech, as his special assistant on tech and competition issues. Facebook, Google, and Amazon all face federal lawsuits that could, at least in theory, result in the companies being broken up, and Apple is said to be under investigation by the Justice Department. When it comes to taking on the tech giants, says Matt Stoller, the research director of the American Economic Liberties Project, “the White House has been aggressive.”
But there’s no reason to believe, given her long track record of supporting her tech “partners,” that Harris would continue Biden’s effort to curb their monopolistic practices. Harris is the first vice president whose political career owes so much to Silicon Valley, and after years of working closely with the very platforms that are now under federal scrutiny, her personal ties to Big Tech remain deep and extensive. Her brother-in-law Tony West, who cochaired her Senate transition team, is now general counsel at Uber. Her niece, Meena Harris, spent the aughts working at
opinion piece by Rebecca Prozan, who had managed her first San Francisco campaign. By then, Prozan had a new job — overseeing West Coast policy issues for Google., Uber, and Facebook, where she met her husband, who serves as the company’s global head of partnerships for the ad tech division. LeBlanc, who advised Harris on tech policy, is a partner at a law firm that has represented Facebook as a client. Other Harris aides and staffers have moved on to influential posts at Google, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Emerson Collective, which is backed by Powell Jobs. In November 2020, days after Harris became vice president-elect, she was praised in an
All successful politicians, of course, cultivate friends in high places, particularly among the leading industrialists of their home state. But the myriad threats posed by Harris’ friends in Silicon Valley, whether by accident or design, have metastasized since she served as attorney general for California. The tech industry has changed dramatically over the past decade, but so far there is little indication that Harris is prepared to alter her approach to regulating it — to begin relying on sticks rather than carrots. Should Democrats pick her to succeed Biden, her tech sympathies could make it difficult for the party to grapple with an industry that has come to dominate almost everything we read, watch, buy, share, and consume. When asked whether Attorney General Harris considered Facebook to be a “good actor” in 2012 — and whether Vice President Harris continued to do so today — her spokesperson declined to comment.
Additional reporting by Robin Bravender.