Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate suggests Big Tech might avoid the hammer blow of a breakup if the ticket wins the White House.
Public scrutiny of fields such as artificial intelligence, digital surveillance and cybersecurity have sparked more talk in Congress about a slew of new laws for the tech industry. Tech executives and venture capitalists have high hopes California’s junior senator will bring a moderate touch to those conversations and to regulating large and small businesses alike.
“How do you do that without creating unintended consequences?” said Casey Ellis, founder of San Francisco-based cybersecurity startup Bugcrowd Inc. “That’s a hard problem to solve, and I think she’s been pretty thoughtful about it.”
A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Ms. Harris served as California’s attorney general as Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook Inc. and
grew into global titans and critics began questioning their influence.
While vice presidents have limited power to shape or enforce policy from the White House, advocates say she could help prioritize the tech industry’s policy wishlist, which includes issues such as immigration reform. The Trump administration has curtailed visas for highly skilled workers, drawing rebukes from Silicon Valley in recent months.
“There should be policies to, in a controlled way, allow those people to come over,” said Umesh Padval, a partner at San Francisco-based Thomvest Ventures who invests in cybersecurity and cloud-infrastructure startups. “The tech industry prospered on this.”
interview last year, Ms. Harris didn’t say whether the federal government should break up Big Tech, but did call for consumer privacy protections. Though California has a statewide privacy law, company officials and industry lobbyists have increasingly called for a federal standard to avoid a patchwork of state-level statutes.
“Our hope is that a potential Biden and Harris administration will be able to move that up the prioritization list,” said Peter Leroe-Muñoz, senior vice president of tech and innovation policy for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade association.
A federal privacy law could have a significant effect on international data flows and digital trade, said Nick Elledge, chief operating officer at Palo Alto, Calif.-based DataFleets, which offers a platform for training AI models without moving private data. Innovation in AI and other areas requires access to massive troves of data, he said, and the lack of a U.S. privacy standard could inhibit data flows between the U.S. and other countries or regions, such as the European Union, that have stronger laws.
“We’re currently headed toward the Balkanization of international data,” Mr. Elledge said. “That’s bad for all [artificial intelligence and machine-learning] initiatives, whether it’s for financial fraud detection or medical imaging to fight cancer.”
Ms. Harris might be more skeptical toward other technologies.
A former prosecutor, she has expressed concern that facial recognition could perpetuate racial bias by misidentifying people of color at disproportionately high rates. Civil liberties groups increasingly have pushed for regulating, if not banning, the use of facial recognition technology. Major tech companies, including
have stopped selling the technology to police in the absence of federal regulations.
“The issue of reducing algorithmic bias based on race, gender, etc. is already key for her and is likely to become even more important,” said Arijit Sengupta, founder and chief executive of Aible Inc., a Foster City, Calif.-based AI company.
Ms. Harris has also criticized social media, including its impact on U.S. elections and the spread of misinformation and hate speech. A growing number of lawmakers from both parties have responded by suggesting changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields internet companies from liability for user content.
Mr. Biden has previously said he wants to revoke Section 230, but advocates say the liability shield is critical for the open internet in its current form. Ms. Harris, who’s been targeted by disinformation campaigns, has backed narrower reforms to the law.
“Harris’ stronger relationships in Silicon Valley might make [revoking Section 230] less likely,” said Shuman Ghosemajumder, global head of AI at Seattle-based infrastructure and cybersecurity firm
Inc. “On the other hand, she could help convince tech companies of the need for regulation.”
—Steven Rosenbush contributed to this article.
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