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Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders slam Big Tech but their campaigns spend heavily on them

  • August 26, 2019

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  • Democratic presidential hopefuls have hit the campaign trail, meeting fellow Americans and fun times along the way. Check out some fun moments of the candidates on the trail. Former Vice President Joe Biden poses for selfies with supporters during the Iowa State Fair August 08, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa.1 of 30
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  • Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tim Ryan, D-OH, enjoys the Iowa State Fair with his family after speaking on the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox on August 10, 2019.20 of 30
  • FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2018, file photo, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, greets supporters in Honolulu on November 6, 2018. 21 of 30
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WASHINGTON – In March, when thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers in Los Angeles went on strike over low pay and lack of benefits, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren took to Twitter to slam the companies and accuse them of “squeezing” workers while executives cashed in.

“The drivers are fighting for living wages and better working conditions, and I stand with them,” the U.S. senator from Massachusetts wrote.

That same day, her campaign entered expense reports for seven Lyft and 54 Uber charges totaling more than $850.

Warren condemned the companies again in May for using a “business model [that] depends, in part, on low wages for their drivers.” 

But between January and June, her campaign paid nearly $12,000 to the companies, according to public Federal Election Commission filings. The only candidate to top Warren on ride-sharing expenses was Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who spent almost $15,000. Her brother-in-law, Tony West, is general counsel of Uber, though Harris also voiced support for striking drivers. 

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who like Warren has frequently promised on the campaign trail to rein in big corporations, has also complained about the ride-sharing companies.

His message for the companies? “The greed has got to end.” His campaign still spent over $9,000 on Ubers and Lyfts in the first half of 2019.

Sanders and Warren were also among the top spenders at a few other large technology companies, a class of businesses they have railed against repeatedly. In total, the progressive senators paid almost two million dollars to Uber, Lyft, Amazon, Google and Facebook.

Their criticisms range from the companies’ practices on labor to their policies on privacy.

The candidates have objected to the working conditions at Amazon warehouses, which Sanders called “unconscionable.” Sanders also introduced legislation – the “Stop BEZOS Act” – in the Senate proposing a tax on Amazon over the public benefits its employees receive.

The duo even wrote to CEO Jeff Bezos warning him to stop the company’s “potentially illegal anti-union behavior” after a video leaked last fall that warned managers at Amazon-owned Whole Foods stores of the consequences of unionizing.

They have also been vocal critics of what they see as monopolistic tendencies at the company. Sanders singled out Amazon for “moving very rapidly to be a monopoly” at a Washington Post event in July.

Sanders also frequently remarks that Amazon “did not pay one nickel” in federal income taxes, despite raking in billions in profits. Earlier this month, at a New Hampshire campaign event, Sanders noted that he talks about this “all of the time.”

“And then I wonder why The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me. I don’t know why,” said Sanders in remarks that drew comparisons to the criticisms President Donald Trump regularly lobs at Bezos and the Post.

Trump has tweeted or retweeted criticism of The Washington Post more than 50 times since running for president. He has repeatedly accused The Post of being a “lobbyist newspaper” that Bezos uses “as protection against antitrust claims” against Amazon, despite assurances from top editors that Bezos allows the newsroom “to operate with full independence.”

Like Sanders, Trump has also criticized Amazon for not paying taxes, writing on Twitter in 2015 that they are a “big tax shelter” with the “power to screw public.” He has said he is looking into antitrust policy regarding Amazon as well as Facebook and Google – both of which he has also accused of anti-conservative bias. 

Despite his qualms, the Trump campaign paid Amazon about $17,500 in six months.

In contrast, the Sanders camp spent almost $140,000 on office supplies, event supplies, and technology from Amazon in the first two quarters, while Warren spent more than $80,000 on the same goods and services. No other candidate spent even close to that amount, with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., coming in third at $31,000. 

For her part, Warren sums up her concerns about Amazon by suggesting it is acting as both “the umpire” and “the player” in online retail by running both the sales platform and selling its own goods.

“You don’t get to be an umpire and have a team in the game,” she says. Amazon’s ability to collect data and information on all its users gives it an unfair advantage in the marketplace, Warren has said.

Amazon has pushed back on this narrative. In April, the corporate Amazon News Twitter account retweeted video from a town hall where Warren discussed why she wanted to break up big tech.

 “We don’t use individual sellers’ data to launch private label products (which account for only about 1% of sales). And sellers aren’t being “knocked out” – they’re seeing record sales every year,” the tweet said.

Warren responded by accusing Amazon of “intentionally” misconstruing the facts.

Both Sanders and Warren have pledged that, if elected, they will seek to break up Facebook, Google and Amazon.

Warren published a plan on the subject on Medium, vowing to make “big, structural changes to the tech sector to promote more competition.” She wants regulators to roll back big tech mergers, like Amazon acquiring Whole Foods and online retail company Zappos; Google buying navigation app Waze and smart home products maker Nest; as well as Facebook purchasing messaging platform WhatsApp and photo-driven social media site Instagram.

Warren was also a top spender on Google and Facebook, which do business during presidential campaign cycles with internet advertising, digital media and subscriptions. She spent over $440,000 on Google, second to South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg who almost hit $500,000. And she purchased over $1.17 million of Facebook advertising, more than any other candidate.

Yet she accused Google and Facebook of having “scooped up” content from other creators, and admonished companies that “have a ton of our data” when consumers ought to have “more control over how their personal information is collected, shared, and sold.” 

Other big spenders on Google and Facebook, such as Buttigieg, have their own proposals for the companies.

Buttigieg, for example, believes it’s too soon to contemplate breaking up any of the companies. Instead, he wants to empower the enforcers at the Federal Trade Commission with more staff, funding or authority.

“We’re going to need to empower the FTC to be able to intervene, including blocking or reversing merges in cases where there’s anti-competitive behavior by tech companies,” he said during a townhall on CNN in April.

Angie Kronenberg, chief advocate and general counsel of INCOMPAS – a trade association whose members include Facebook, Amazon, Google Fiber, Netflix and Twitter – said she was hardly surprised by the money Sanders and Warren were spending on companies they criticize.

“In our experience, Americans have embraced tech innovations and services because it makes their lives easier and better,” Kronenberg said. “It’s not surprising to us that the campaigns also would be using these services because they’re convenient and affordable.”

Kronenberg encouraged the candidates to “embrace the experience” that their campaign staffers and supporters are having with technology, including its “convenience,” “affordability,” and positive impact on the economy.

“I do think that they need to embrace that experience as they consider potential implications for policy positions they may have in the campaigns and certainly if they’re elected president,” Kronenberg said. “The potential threat to the positive consumer experience could be very troubling to voters.”

The Federal Election Commission only records direct disbursements from candidates’ accounts. However, candidates can also buy Google and Facebook advertisements through third-party consultants or strategists. The two tech giants have published transparency reports since May 2018 offering their most up-to-date totals for ad buys, and they show that Sanders and Warren have not withheld their funds.

Warren topped the list at Google, per its transparency report, totaling $1.74 million. Buttigieg was just behind her at $1.7 million. Sanders’ number totaled just over $750,000, which placed him midway through the Democratic field, in seventh place, behind other candidates including Harris and Vice President Joe Biden.

But Sanders topped the list of Facebook ad buy totals since May 2018 on its transparency report, totaling over $2.5 million for the purchase of 34,000 ads. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Biden spent similarly, at $2.48 million and $2.16 million respectively. Warren was not too far behind at just over $2 million. 

The only candidate spending more than any of the Democrats, according to Google and Facebook, was Trump. The Make America Great Again Committee spent $6 million on Google ads and nearly $11.5 million on Facebook ads since May 2018. Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., spent an additional $2 and $5 million dollars on Google and Facebook, respectively.

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