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Can Regulating Silicon Valley Unify Democrats, Republicans?

Members of both parties — and most Americans — think Big Tech controls too much of our personal data, isn't transparent and targets children in an unseemly way in the pursuit of profits.

Washington Dc Congress Statues
(TNS) — President Biden tried Tuesday to capitalize on a rare sentiment that Republicans and Democrats agree on: They're both frustrated with Silicon Valley.

Members of both parties — and most Americans — think Big Tech controls too much of our personal data, isn't transparent and targets children in an unseemly way in the pursuit of profits.

Biden tried to tap into this anger during his State of the Union message Tuesday by calling for stronger transparency requirements on tech companies and imposing tougher limits on the targeted advertising and personal data that they collect.

And he was supported by several House members who represent the Valley.

"We must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit," Biden said.

He called for legislation "to stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online, ban targeted advertising to children and impose stricter limits on the personal data these companies collect on all of us."

It was one of the rare moments Tuesday that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — a Bakersfield Republican who used to take GOP members on tours of Valley companies to highlight their innovation — and the House Republican majority stood and applauded.

Biden's references to Big Tech were part of a populist thread throughout his 73-minute speech. He railed on the usury of Big Pharma, called for billionaires to pay their fair share of taxes and demanded tougher "antitrust enforcement to prevent big online platforms from giving their own products an unfair advantage."

There is public support for tougher privacy laws. A Morning Consult survey from last June found that 87% of respondents supported banning the sale of an individual's data to third parties without their explicit consent. A similar number supported increasing data privacy protections for children under 17.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D- Palo Alto, whose district lies in the Valley, didn't see Biden's remarks as an attack on the region. She said Biden raised "important issues."

"Our data is our data," Eshoo said. "I don't think it belongs to a company. And then to have our data used against us, or sold or manipulated — it certainly is not what I signed up for."

Eshoo said "the president is looking to protect the American people. We have essentially lost control of our data. These are not, in my view, menacing policies."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D- San Jose, who plans to reintroduce data privacy legislation with Eshoo this year, was also supportive of Biden's proposals.

"Privacy abuses and data manipulation are two of the most pervasive problems online, and it's specifically alarming how children, adolescents and teens are exploited," Lofgren said. She said her legislation would "prevent abusive collection and retention of personal information. If companies can't collect data, they can't use that data to manipulate Americans."

Carl Holshouser, senior vice president of TechNet, which represents 104 tech companies ranging from startups to Google, said "tech companies and businesses from every sector we talked to are ready to work with the president and Congress to get this done."

Holshouser said one important point that Biden didn't make is that any new laws "must ensure that Chinese-based companies like TikTok have to live by the same rules that American companies must abide by."

In a way, Biden is following California's lead on regulating the tech industry.

Last September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that required tech companies to design their platforms with the well-being of children in mind and to adopt the highest default privacy settings for users under 18.

The measure, written by Assembly Member Buffy Wicks, D- Oakland, made California the first state to compel social media companies to create guardrails for children who use their apps and websites.

Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based children's advocacy organization Common Sense Media, saw potential for bipartisan cooperation in Biden's tech proposals.

"We have seen strong bipartisan interest in addressing online harms to kids and teens and I encourage Congress to finally deliver the legislative action that America's families are expecting for their kids," Steyer said.

But Biden didn't just rail on Big Tech. He also cited a Silicon Valley company — Intel — as one of America's recent success stories. Biden lauded the company for building a semiconductor factory in Ohio that will create 10,000 jobs. Rep. Ro Khanna, D- Santa Clara, who was with Biden in Ohio for the plant's groundbreaking, praised Biden for showing how technology can revive America's manufacturing base "and making it the core of his speech." Khanna was invited to appear with Biden in Ohio because he has been talking for years about how to bring Silicon Valley's economic engine to more economically depressed parts of the country.

Biden isn't the first president to use Silicon Valley as a rallying cry. During former President Donald Trump's first year in office, top adviser Steve Bannon tried to mine populist — and bipartisan — resentment against what he described as "the lords of Silicon Valley."

To Bannon, the Valley is part of the political establishment — along with "lobbyists, consultants and corporatists and globalist elites" who are ruining the country for the working class."

That approach didn't yield a lot of success in securing bipartisan privacy regulation. Maybe Biden's approach will.

© 2023 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.