Dems offer grab-bag of tech crackdown ideas during debate

WHO WILL IT BE?: 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, from left: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; Tom Steyer, co-founder of NextGen Climate Action Committee; Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Former vice president Joe Biden; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana; Andrew Yang, founder of Venture for America; Beto O'Rourke, former representative from Texas; Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; and Julian Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, during the Democratic presidential candidate debate in Westerville, Ohio, on Oct. 15. Allison Farrand/Bloomberg

One of the sharper exchanges in Tuesday's Democratic primary debate centered on the crucial public policy question of what to do about President Donald Trump's Twitter account.

During a broader back-and-forth over the power of large technology companies, Sen. Kamala Harris repeatedly demanded that Sen. Elizabeth Warren support her effort to pressure Twitter to kick President Donald Trump off the platform. In response, Warren steered the conversation to her commitment not to accept big checks from tech executives. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who had been lamenting the prevalence of smartphone addiction a moment earlier, jumped in to complain that Americans weren't getting paid for their data. "Who remembers getting your data check in the mail?" he asked.

The exchange illustrated a wider dynamic of the Democrats' approach to tech. The candidates all agree that something needs to be done about America's technology giants. They just can't agree on what that something is.

The need for a crackdown on large U.S. technology companies has become an area of bipartisan agreement, with Republicans and Democrats alike raising concerns about market power, privacy and the influence large tech companies have over political discourse.

But unlike time-worn political flash points like abortion or gun control, the tech debate has yet to be boiled down to simple left-right bromides that candidates can repeat on the stump. The result was an unfocused conversation on the debate stage.

Warren, who was treated as the frontrunner throughout the evening, has put out the clearest plans among the Democratic candidates. For months she's been calling to break up Facebook, Amazon and Google. "I'm not willing to give up and let a handful of monopolists dominate our democracy and our economy. It's time to fight back," she said Tuesday. Yang said he agreed with her diagnosis. "Monopolies need to be dealt with," added Tom Steyer.

But the conversation quickly shifted from antitrust to privacy to election security. And candidates weren't just thinking about breaking up Big Tech. Sen. Cory Booker called for antitrust action that focused on everything from "pharma to farms" - referencing efforts to investigate consolidation in the pharmaceutical and agricultural industry. Most candidates focused their ire on Facebook and Twitter.

Harris's attempt to browbeat Warren into supporting her stance on banning Trump's Twitter account was notable for how it highlighted a parallel with Warren's own crusade to pressure Facebook to ban misleading Trump ads on Facebook. Warren declined to comply and called out Amazon's dominance in online shopping, saying that it held a much larger share of online sales than Walmart does of brick-and-mortar commerce.

At another moment in the debate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar brought up the Honest Ads Act, a bill she co-sponsored that increases disclosure requirements on who is paying for online advertisements. For his part, former congressman Beto O'Rourke said that Facebook should be treated like a publisher, seemingly an allusion to a 1990s-era law protecting technology platforms from much legal liability for content their users post to their websites.

"We would allow no publisher to do what Facebook is doing," O'Rourke said. On the other hand, O'Rourke said that he did not see it as the role of a presidential candidate to call out particular companies that needed to be broken up. It was a subtle dig at Warren, whose explicit plan to break up the companies has clearly made her the candidate who other candidates measure their own ideas on tech against.

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