At a moment when the biggest issues in technology are ascendant in national politics, Joe Biden has often been difficult to pin down. And that may not change anytime soon: The presumptive Democratic nominee does not have a top adviser focused on tech policy, according to campaign materials and party veterans, including some who have offered informal advice to Biden on tech.
The lack of tech leadership in the campaign marks a contrast with his Democratic predecessors, as well as some of Biden's competitors in the Democratic primary, and reflects a belief that issues like online misinformation, privacy regulation and alleged anticompetitive behavior by tech's giants will not be pivotal to unseating President Trump. To some advocates for reforming the tech industry, though, Biden — whose written policy prescriptions largely avoid venturing into tech — is missing an opportunity to lead in areas that have gained new prominence and urgency.
"I think it's really crucial that the nominee shows some leadership and gets specific about what we're talking about," said Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights organization Fight for the Future, naming the digital divide, net neutrality and mass surveillance as issues she believes the public wants to see action on. "I think politicians tend to underestimate the degree to which people really do care about these policies and the specifics of them."
The Biden campaign declined to comment. While many tech policy veterans are offering advice and guidance to the campaign, tech issues are nowhere near as central as they were in Barack Obama's run in 2008 or Hillary Clinton's in 2016.
"Nobody's talking to Joe Biden about tech policy," said one veteran of several Democratic campaigns, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly. "If you look at Biden's inner circle, Obama and Hillary always had people in their inner circle who were native to tech issues, and that hasn't been the case with Biden."
In 2008, Obama tapped a network of hundreds of tech policy wonks to help formulate his "technology and innovation plan," the first roadmap of its kind released during a presidential campaign. Significant elements of that early plan, which revolved around pushing technologists into every level of government, became policy during his administration.
Four years later, Clinton amassed more than 100 experts to inform her Silicon Valley-friendly tech agenda, a nerd army that enjoyed direct lines into her campaign through inner-circle advisers, including former Free Press policy director and State Department official Ben Scott, U.S. Digital Service co-founder Jennifer Palkha and Alec Ross, Clinton's longtime tech adviser at the State Department. Those advisers helped shape Clinton's tech agenda, dubbed by Wired as the "wonkiest tech policy ever."
"There's not exactly that for Biden," said Gigi Sohn, a former FCC counselor in the Obama administration who says she has given informal advice to the Biden campaign on issues related to Section 230, the liability shield for internet platforms, as well as tech advice to former Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.
The Biden campaign has only a handful of dedicated policy staffers, and he has not proposed the kind of sweeping policy agenda that defined, say, Warren's run or Clinton's campaign in 2016. The moderate former vice president's strength is connecting with people and emotions — not nitty-gritty policy — and his campaign has leaned into that. "Does having dedicated policy teams win elections?" said Blair Levin, a former FCC lawyer who was instrumental to the Obama campaign's tech push. "If it did, Elizabeth Warren would be the nominee."
To be sure, Biden has a few high-dollar fundraisers from the tech industry, including Microsoft President Brad Smith, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky and Michelle Kraus, Hyperloop's head of government affairs, Axios reported. It's common for fundraisers to offer their thoughts and advice to campaigns. At the same time, as Recode noted, he's failed to garner the kind of fundraising support from young technologists in Silicon Valley that Obama did.
Julius Genachowski, a key Obama adviser on tech issues who became FCC chairman, acknowledged that the Biden team hasn't built the same policy infrastructure as his predecessors. But Genachowski, now managing director of The Carlyle Group, said "there may be less of a need to create a new large infrastructure" given Biden's ample governing experience.
But 2016 defined a new era in Washington's relationship with tech, and every year since has brought thorny questions over how the government should treat an industry that matured from the glitzy darling of Obamaworld into a power center that critics accuse of amplifying misinformation, exploiting personal data, enabling foreign election interference and violating antitrust laws. Vital, too, are decisions by lawmakers on how to help the U.S. compete with countries like China and how to regulate innovations like artificial intelligence that could dramatically alter society.
"There are a huge number of open questions about where the Biden campaign is going to come down on really important policy issues, including [technology] and antitrust more broadly," said Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, which fights the concentration of economic power.
She and other advocates who want Biden to address these issues more aggressively in the coming months say their importance has intensified in the COVID-19 pandemic, which may boost the power of tech's giants and has shined a light on deep inequities in broadband access.
"If I were running for president right now, I'd be making internet access one of my top issues," Greer said. "You go up to anybody on the street and, whether they're wearing a MAGA hat or still rocking Hillary hoodie, and ask them, 'Do you want to make sure you always have access to the internet?' They're going to say yes. That's such a basic issue, and one that should be getting more airtime."
There are certainly people thinking about technology within the Biden camp. Three months ago, Biden tapped Larry Strickling — a tech policy veteran in Washington and previously the policy coordinator for candidate Pete Buttiegeg — to run "domestic policy issues" for the campaign. Strickling, a former Department of Commerce official who has worked at the nexus of government and tech since the 1990s, is charged with establishing the campaign's policy working groups, at least one of which will be focused on tech policy, according to two people who were asked to be in the group. Strickling declined to comment for this story.
Stef Feldman, Biden's in-house policy director, oversees all policy issues, including technology. And Ron Klain, one of Biden's senior advisers and his former chief of staff, is an executive with Revolution, an investment firm launched by AOL co-founder Steve Case that supports companies outside of Silicon Valley — though he said in an email, "I'm not a policy adviser to the campaign." The campaign did hold at least one call with outside advisers that delved into tech and telecom-related issues, said one person who was on the call. That was before the Iowa caucus in February.
Where Biden stands
Biden has been relatively mum on the problems bearing down on the tech industry, mainly only addressing them when asked. His website does not have a section devoted to his tech agenda, though his infrastructure plan has a section on broadband access, and his climate plan emphasizes "clean technology development."
The views Biden has expressed on tech are largely middle-of-the-road. He declined to get behind Warren's push to "break up big tech," saying he doesn't support singling out particular companies for regulators to go after. He's called for increasing internet access across the country through federal funding, and he's long supported net neutrality. In a memorable detour from his moderate streak, Biden called for revoking Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a move that not even the law's harshest critics would get behind. "I don't think the theory of the case inside the Biden campaign is that it wins on pure policy … in part because the candidate has tripped up," said the Democratic veteran of several campaigns.
Biden has longstanding ties to the traditional telecom industry and a familiarity with broadband issues. Comcast executive David Cohen held Biden's first fundraiser last year, and one of Biden's senior advisers, lobbyist Steve Ricchetti, previously represented AT&T. Biden stood with Obama as he heralded net neutrality rules, and as vice president, he launched initiatives to spread internet access.
"When I was in government, I saw first-hand Joe Biden's engagement with technology issues, particularly around broadband," Genachowski said.
There are still some grudges in the tech industry over Biden's fervent support of SOPA-PIPA, two Hollywood-backed anti-piracy laws that the industry protested in 2012. "Biden has always been viewed as sort of Hollywood's guy on tech and telecom policy," the Democratic campaign veteran said. Biden's deputy campaign manager for communications strategy, Kate Bedingfield, was a former vice president of communications with the Motion Picture Association of America, a trade group that counts Disney, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner as members.
"The fact of the matter is, the vice president, when he was in the Senate, was an [intellectual property] guy," Sohn said. "His focus in this area was more on copyright patent trademark than it was on broadband and telecommunications."
'Do you need it?'
When it comes to amassing the votes needed to beat President Trump, ultimately it's doubtful that an expansive tech policy agenda or network is the way to get there, said Levin, the former FCC lawyer, who directed the agency's National Broadband Plan from 2009 to 2010. "This will not be a debate about plans," said Levin, shrugging off questions about whether he wishes Biden would place more emphasis on tech. "While I, as a tech and telecom policy wonk, would love there to be such an operation … if your goal is to win the election, do you need it?"
Genachowski agreed, citing the structure of Biden's campaign, its limited resources and its laser-focused mission. "It makes good sense to me that Joe Biden and his team would be focused on the primary objective of winning the election," he said.
Clinton had 25 different policy advisory committees, each with dozens of members producing a whirlwind of memos and policy papers. "One of the lessons we learned in 2016 is that a presidential campaign against Donald Trump is not about policy," said a policy adviser to the Clinton campaign, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. "You can have hundreds of the smartest experts on every issue under the sun, and it doesn't matter."
It may also be a little too soon. While Clinton, Obama and Warren placed a heavy emphasis on policy early in their campaigns, the most serious policy work of a presidential race often happens during the transition, when the campaign begins assigning teams to plan what governing could really look like. A number of tech-literate staffers who worked for other campaigns may make their way over to the Biden campaign. And the serious work could begin in earnest around August.
Miller, of the American Economic Liberties Project, said her antitrust group has provided materials to the Biden campaign describing its views.
"I'm sure they have their eyes on this," Miller said. But, she added, "it's certainly not clear to me, necessarily, what their ultimate policy will be towards tech."