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Bradley Tusk: What a Biden administration might do to Big Tech

On this week's Source Code Podcast, Tusk talks tech politics, mobile voting and more.

Bradley Tusk

Bradley Tusk thinks no matter who wins the election, the next two years could be tough for Big Tech.

Photo: Tusk Ventures

Times like these in the tech industry are sort of Bradley Tusk's sweet spot.

There's an election looming, Big Tech CEOs are being dragged in front of Congress seemingly every other week, privacy legislation is being debated and created across the country, and regulators are looking into everything from self-driving cars to the future of telehealth. And Tusk, after a long career at the intersection of tech and politics — as an advisor to Uber, a deputy governor for Illinois, a campaign manager for Mike Bloomberg, a managing partner at Tusk Ventures and more — has a pretty good grasp on all of it.

On this week's Source Code Podcast, we caught up with Tusk to talk about what the election means for the tech industry, whether the story changes depending on who wins, and why he sees stability as the most important goal going forward. We also talked about the state of mobile voting, why Prop 22 could change the ride-sharing business across the country, and what he thought of Brian Armstrong's note about Coinbase being a "mission-focused company."

Below are excerpts from the interview, edited for length and clarity.

In your recent letter to companies and founders, you wrote that the big pro of a Joe Biden presidency was stability. That was the word you kept using over and over again. Why is stability the thing?

I think the thing that everyone would love — by the way, I think this is even true on the Republican side to some extent — is a boring presidency that's relatively calm. Not the anxiety and chaos that we have with [President] Trump every single day. I think people really want that. Look: Companies, investors, markets, they like predictability. Volatility is a problem. The question of whether Biden in a democratic Senate is better for the economy than Trump and a Republican Senate? It depends. If it were Bernie Sanders, different question, but with a moderate Democrat, then the question just becomes, can you emotionally handle four more years of this? And for most people, the answer is no.

I talk to some people who say that if Biden wins, it's going to be a lot easier for tech companies in some ways. Then I talk to others who say, no, he's going to make Sen. Elizabeth Warren the Attorney General and she's going to tear down tech. Do you have a sense one way or the other?

I think the answer is, it depends. If you're Amazon, Facebook, Google, if you're any of the really big tech companies, I think from a political and regulatory standpoint, the next four years, or at least two years of the Democratic Senate and a Biden White House, could be pretty tough. For a few reasons.

One, ideologically, Democrats have long supported things like tougher antitrust regulations, a privacy framework like what they have in Europe, potentially repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This has been on the list of policies that Democrats have wanted for a while.

But two, and I think this is much more concerning if you're Big Tech: If you're Biden, or [House Majority Leader Nancy] Pelosi, or [Sen. Chuck] Schumer, you need to give the far left stuff to keep them busy. You want to make all the big decisions, you want to handle the major initiatives, the first hundred days. You don't want to be hijacked by [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and the Green New Deal and all that stuff, which means you have to give them issues that they care about and have substance to work on, so they don't feel like they're getting blown off.

If you're Joe Biden, do you really care if Facebook is one company, or if Instagram, Whatsapp and Facebook are three separate companies? No! Not in the slightest, right? Do you care if AWS and Amazon are the same or different? No! And by the way, Schumer, Pelosi and Biden, the average age is pretty close to 80 in that group. I don't think most of them know what any of this stuff is.

So I think the biggest threat to Big Tech is not even just ideology, it's that it's in the political interest of the centrist Democratic leadership to make them the sacrificial lamb to keep the far left busy.

Whoever wins, there's going to be so much to deal with: We have COVID, the economy, health care, just so many fights to fight. Is tech even going to be a priority? Are we going to get to any of this in two years, regardless of who wins?

We may not. I think it depends. Part of the way to break it up is administrative action versus legislative action, right. So if Biden is president, whoever the Attorney General is will inherit at least an existing antitrust prosecution against Google. They at the very least have to decide whether to continue that or not.

And I think there are some very strong arguments as to why they may not, because ultimately this felt like a very rushed political deal by Trump and [Attorney General William] Barr, and it may be in Trump's political interest to do something against Google before the election. But the Biden Justice Department may say "this is a much harder case to make than the one against Facebook," for example.

The other half of the battle is legislative. I don't think Schumer, Biden, Pelosi, the people really running the place, are going to spend time on these tech issues. So for AOC, Elizabeth Warren, [Sen.] Sherrod Brown, how big a priority is this? If it's the number one priority, I see Pelosi and Schumer saying, "Knock yourself out, have at it." And I don't think Biden's going to veto anything that comes from a Democratic Congress.

Even then, I don't think you can get done at the same time new antitrust regulations, a national privacy framework, and repealing Section 230. I think you have to pick one.

Which would you bet on being the one they pick?

On 230, the upside is you'd get bipartisan support, because the conservatives are convinced that Twitter and Facebook are out to get them. So if you for some reason wanted something bipartisan, 230 is a pretty good one.

And then number two would be privacy. That's probably the most impactful and important. Because yes, they could pass new regulations, but the Justice Department already has pretty significant ability to go after companies on antitrust violation grounds. So the one that will be the most meaningful will be privacy. So if the left said, "we really, really want to do this," I would imagine that's what they would pick.

The very first thing I thought of when you said you would do this interview was, "I have to ask him about the Coinbase memo." Because it has sparked this fascinating discussion about, what is a company's job in the world? And right now, that debate has never been more obvious. So what did you make of that?

So first of all, we're an investor in Coinbase. Let me disclose that.

Brian is a really, really smart guy. He's an unusual guy. I don't think a totally conventional person creates an incredible cryptocurrency trading platform. And it feels like every successful tech founder's kind of a weird person, right? What I liked about it, even though it's not where I've come out in my own business, was that it was very honest. And it was very transparent, and very candid.

It's not clear that employees shouldn't have the right to have a dissenting point of view, or to create something that may not be a safe space. So I think in some ways, the way that Coinbase handled it was very clear, and no one has any doubt as to what their obligation is as a company, which is to make money for its investors. And I respect that. And, you know, I thought what Expensify did was pretty bold, and maybe a little bolder than what Coinbase did, in a way. But again, I respected that too. And if you believe that four more years of Trump is an existential threat to democracy and the planet, I understand the feeling that you've got to act on it.

The thing I had a hard time with over Brian's memo was just trying to figure out if what he's asking for is even practical. I don't know if you can run a company outside of politics right now.

Yeah, absolutely. What Brian's trying to do may not be feasible, but I respect the attempt to provide clear, bright rules to employees, to say this is what we are and this is what we're not. Whether that succeeds, I don't know.

Though the question is this: If Biden wins, does that separation come back a little bit? Where politics is not completely the dominant force in everyone's mindset, everyone's life all the time? If Biden is some version of Sleepy Joe — and I think I would be pretty happy if he was — it's just like, let's have some peace and quiet.

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