Amazon.com Inc. and other Big Tech companies could face moderate antitrust scrutiny and more friendly, pro-immigrant hiring policies from a potential U.S. administration led by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, according to policy analysts.
Harris, D-Calif., cultivated relationships with the tech industry during her past tenure as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general in California. The vice presidential contender has also sided with tech firms on issues such as net neutrality and taken a stance far less severe than Sen. Elizabeth Warren's call to break up Big Tech.
Analysts believe Harris is likely to back policy proposals that increase accountability and transparency among Big Tech firms, such as Apple Inc., Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google LLC, rather than harsh punishments that would break up business units. She and Biden might opt to support broader policies to rein in Big Tech's collective market power rather than single out Amazon. Meanwhile, she and Biden are likely to unwind many immigration policies of President Donald Trump, who has viewed immigration as a threat to the U.S. economy. Tech companies rely heavily on high-skilled immigrant visas to recruit workers.
"I think she will find a middle that attempts to enforce more accountability versus breakup," said Nicol Turner-Lee, senior fellow and director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Technology Innovation, in an interview. "I would see her in support of transparency and visibility of Big Tech practices and pushing for more anti-discrimination frameworks and potentially putting in place regulation if it means more competition for small businesses."
Sen. Kamala Harris will leverage her relationships with the tech community and support hospitable immigration policies, according to policy analysts.
Biden and Harris have not made antitrust a central theme of their campaign. They have instead focused mainly on the pandemic response, advancing racial equity in the COVID-19 era, and environmental and social justice.
But experts say a Biden-Harris administration is likely to be a convener and mediator between lawmakers and the tech community amid bipartisan efforts to restrain Big Tech at a time when all four firms have been the focus of a probe overseen by the U.S. House Judiciary's antitrust subcommittee.
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It would be a different tack from the Trump administration, which has taken a more relaxed approach to antitrust issues. According to a 2020 American Antitrust Institute report, the administration failed to "protect competition at a time when markets are highly concentrated and evidence of competitive abuse surfaces with increasing regularity."
The scrutiny comes as Amazon has grown exponentially over the past decade, with the pandemic only fueling demand as more consumers move online. The company's total revenue in 2019 reached $280.52 billion in 2019, up from $232.89 billion in 2018. Amazon's revenue is expected to reach $368.23 billion in 2020 and $433.02 billion in 2021, according to a consensus of analysts compiled by S&P Capital IQ.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But with strong bipartisan support to take a tougher stance on antitrust and the economic vulnerabilities laid bare during the pandemic, Harris will not be able to ignore the issue altogether, said Turner-Lee of Brookings. "I would say she may struggle with her historical record of support of the innovation sector with this immediate call to action," Turner-Lee said. "In other words, she can't put this off."
That said, tech advocates believe that Harris will be much more open to working with them on policy than the current administration. Harris is likely to hold discussions with both the public and private sector industry to find solutions, said Peter Leroe-Muñoz, senior vice president of technology and innovation policy for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a public policy association of more than 360 member companies, including Apple, Facebook and Google.
"This is someone who is thoughtful and shown that she wants to bring in different voices to the conversation; she's not going to simply listen to one side of the debate," Leroe-Muñoz said in an interview. "She makes sure she has information and context because it's easy to give in to a political moment where there is one group or segment that is trying to push an agenda."
As both district attorney and attorney general, Harris oversaw the growth of Big Tech starting in the mid-2000s but steered clear of any antitrust enforcement actions that would have stopped mergers like Facebook's acquisition of Instagram LLC in 2012, Turner-Lee said. That deal is now being scrutinized by lawmakers as anti-competitive.
Harris also reportedly cultivated a relationship with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who asked Harris to be part of the marketing push for Sandberg's 2013 book Lean In, according to a July 17 HuffPost report.
"The question becomes, Will she be able to pivot to a stance that will be more critical of Big Tech or assume more of a leadership role in getting Big Tech to function in accordance with what the Democrats would like to see in terms of better behavior?" Turner-Lee said.
Biden's campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Harris most certainly would not make public denouncements of Big Tech companies, a hallmark of Trump, who has criticized companies like Amazon and Apple on Twitter. Amazon's cloud-computing unit Amazon Web Services Inc. has also accused Trump of influencing the Pentagon's award of the $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, Cloud computing contract to Microsoft Corp.
Whether Trump's comments have influenced the contract is unknown, said Michael Hettinger, founding principal and president of Hettinger Strategy Group, a government relations and federal market advisory firm, in an interview. But Hettinger said the "personal animosity between the president and Amazon would go away if Trump were no longer in office."
"I'm sure they would love to not be tweeted about every couple of weeks," Hettinger said. "From a branding management standpoint, it's never good to have the president of the United States singling you out on Twitter."
Biden and Harris may opt for tougher conversations that take place behind the scenes, Turner-Lee said. "I think the Biden-Harris ticket may play more moderate in public, with more strong-arming behind the scenes," she said.
The tenor of those conversations could intensify if Big Tech becomes irresponsible in the handling of the election, she said. Google said in June that it removed certain advertisements targeting searches for voter information. Facebook said in September that it would not accept any new political advertisements in the week before the U.S. election. "If the integrity of the election is in some way compromised, people will put that on them," Turner-Lee said.
Tapping tech talent
Biden and Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, would support much friendlier policies that will help Big Tech at a time when the companies have struggled with recruitment amid changes made by the Trump administration, experts say.
For example, the Trump administration's move to crack down on the issuance of H-1B visas has made it difficult for tech companies to recruit foreign nationals. It has also led to an "unprecedented decline in new enrollment with international students," said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan group that seeks to improve immigration policies.
A Biden-Harris administration would advocate for a "consistent message that would be friendly toward legal immigration," and do away with travel bans and other obstacles that have been harmful to U.S. employers' recruitment efforts, Pierce said in an interview. "This administration has been historical and completely unique in that they have viewed both legal and illegal immigration as a threat to the U.S. economy and security," she said.
Harris' inclusion on the ticket certainly heightens the possibility of policy designed to bring more high-skilled immigrant workers into the country, allowing Big Tech to draw from a broader pool of talent, said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow and director of the Migration Policy Institute office in New York.
"Her view of high-skilled immigration is much more developed and much more in tune with the industry demands that might exist," Chishti said in an interview. "She may have more effect on a potential Biden presidency on this issue than Biden's original tendency would have been."
Chishti did note, however, that there is disagreement within the Democratic Party about whether the U.S. should allow more high-skilled immigrants into the country due to concerns over worker exploitation and downward pressure on U.S. wages. So while Biden has said he supports expanding the number of high-skilled immigration visas, it remains to be seen exactly how far he will go, Chishti said. "That's why it's not a full-throated statement in the Biden campaign because it's controversial."
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency could also become more accountable and efficient under Biden and Harris, said Gregory Chen, senior director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, or USCIS, in an interview.
"There are so many policies and regulations that the Trump administration has put into place that functionally make the USCIS inoperable," Chen said, adding that certain immigration applications require an in-person interview, which can more than double the processing time for a case. "I think the Biden administration, as just a practice of good governance, will want to undo those policies to make sure that the agency works in the way that Congress intended it to."