WASHINGTON — Twenty years ago, Jeff Few joined Amazon when it was still an upstart, aiming to break the grip of behemoths such as Barnes & Noble and Blockbuster in the market for books and movies.
“I saw it as this force that would finally enable something closer to a direct democracy,” Few recalled.
Now, Amazon is a titan of e-commerce, and Few, who lives in Seattle and went on to work for Apple and Adobe, has embraced, and donated $300 to, a Democratic presidential candidate who has fiercely criticized his industry and called for the breakup of its biggest players — Senator Elizabeth Warren.
He is far from alone among tech employees. Although Warren has painted tech giants such as Google and Facebook as modern-day villains in her scathing picture of the American economy, she is emerging as a top choice for donations from tech workers, according to an analysis of campaign contributions by The Boston Globe.
With her denunciations of big tech and corporate greed, Warren has tapped into simmering discontent within the industry itself about the size, power, and ethics of its companies. So, while tech executives have often resisted calls from Washington to regulate the industry, employees are contributing to Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the candidates with the most aggressive positions on corporate oversight.
“I agree tech companies are becoming increasingly powerful,” said Vicki Tardif, who works on search products at Google and helped organize a major protest there last fall. She says she has contributed to Warren. “I’m a citizen first — I’m a Google employee second.”
Looking at just the big four tech companies that she wants to break apart — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google — and some of their affiliates, Warren received some $144,000 in itemized donations from their employees over the first six months of the year.
She was second only to Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who raised nearly $149,000 from those employees, in part by holding the kind of private Silicon Valley fund-raisers that Warren eschews. Sanders and California Senator Kamala Harris also raised more than $100,000 from employees of these companies.
The actual amount of donations from people in the tech industry is certainly higher, but campaign filings list information only about donors who give more than $200; moreover, the names of donors’ employers are not always reported consistently.
Her second-quarter finance report also showed Warren’s appeal more broadly across the tech sector, raising at least $142,000 from employees of the big four and seven other US tech giants, including Microsoft and Intel. Buttigieg was tops at $176,000, while Sanders was third, at $95,000.
Warren has been a particularly vocal critic of big tech in recent months. In March, she detailed a plan that would require the biggest companies — those with annual revenue of $25 billion — to separate their technology platforms from their e-commerce activities. So Google’s massive ad-sales operation would split off from its ubiquitous search engine; Amazon could not have both an e-commerce platform and a sales business on it.
She also called for the undoing of “anticompetitive” mergers, naming Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp as an example.
The technology blog Recode greeted the plan with the headline, “Elizabeth Warren just lost the Silicon Valley vote,” and Warren herself promptly appeared at the technology conference South by Southwest to face her critics.
“Monopolists will make fewer monopoly profits,” she said then. “Boo-hoo.”
Warren looks to be setting the tone in a Democratic field that is generally taking a harder line toward the industry. Former vice president Joe Biden and Harris have said it is worth taking a look at her plan, but stopped short of a full-throated endorsement. Buttigieg has said he “potentially” agrees with it, but, during a town hall in March, raised questions about other aspects of big tech: “It’s not how big they are, it’s how they act.” In May, Sanders said he agreed Facebook should be broken up.
Warren and other candidates have also called for big corporations such as Amazon to pay significantly more in taxes. But she, in particular, has drawn the ire of conservative tech mogul and Trump ally Peter Thiel, who called her the Democratic candidate he is most scared of.
In some ways, well-to-do tech employees backing populists such as Warren and Sanders are acting against their own interests. Both candidates are antitrust hawks who want to limit the reach of big corporations; both have supported job actions by low-wage workers at Amazon and drivers for Uber and Lyft.
Warren’s and Sanders’ success with tech workers is partially due to the industry’s liberal leanings, and many employees interviewed for this story emphasized her overall candidacy in describing her appeal, not her specific positions on big tech.
“She’s a wonk,” said Alex Whitworth, a data scientist at Facebook who kicked $250 toward her campaign. “That’s strongly appealing to me, as a wonk.”
For other tech donors, their willingness to back candidates critical of their industry may also be due in part to tensions with their bosses. The tech industry has been roiled by walkouts and protests over contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other government agencies and the military. There is also lingering anger over the role social media networks played in the disinformation campaign Russians used in the 2016 elections.
“We have this tech-lash phenomenon that’s been building over the past few years,” said Ben Tarnoff, editor of Logic magazine, which covers technology. “There’s a large and vocal constituency in the tech sector that is making the case these companies have a responsibility for the tech they’re building.”
Interviews with tech employees who support Warren and Sanders reveal a well of reservations about the increasing power of big corporations and enthusiasm for candidates who are addressing it head-on.
“I like working at Amazon. It’s been the best job of my career,” said Michael Sokolov, a senior software development engineer who donated $250 to Warren. “However, I don’t like the fact that our economy is dominated by gigantic super-corporations.”
Many Democratic candidates have criticized the tech industry while mingling with its luminaries at fund-raisers. Warren’s success among its employees could undermine her image as a fierce critic, although her campaign pointed out it has a policy of not holding private fund-raisers or reaching out directly to members of any industry.
And some of Warren’s tech-industry supporters acknowledged being wary about the specifics of her plans to break up their employers.
Sanders’ appeal among tech workers is not new. In 2016, he drew more donations from workers at Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, than from any other employer, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance. And his class-based analysis of the nation’s economic ills still appeals to tech employees concerned about low-paid workers in their companies’ warehouses, and the insecurity that comes with working as an independent contractor in the gig economy.
And some of Sanders’ tech supporters want him to drill down even further.
“I think we expect to see more — maybe see some politics about collective data regulation,” said Will Luckman, who is part of a tech-focused working group within the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which supports Sanders. “We’d like to see some stuff about gig workers, and how they might be able to reclassify themselves and get collective bargaining rights.”
Some of Sanders’ 2016 supporters from the tech industry have switched to Warren.
“What I have seen from Sanders is mostly calls for a movement without a lot of detail,” said Annabelle Backman, a software engineer at Amazon who was a state delegate for Sanders in the 2016 primary but has contributed $2,700 to Warren in this cycle.
And some of Warren’s long-held positions align directly with demands of tech workers scrutinizing their own industry. Last fall, thousands of Google employees walked out in protest of the company’s policy requiring workers to settle disputes in forced arbitration, instead of through lawsuits, which workers said has allowed Google to keep accusations of serious problems such as sexual assault secret. Warren has been a vocal opponent of forced arbitration for years and proposed prohibiting companies that use the practice from getting federal contracts.
“We’ve been advocating for an end to forced arbitration. We had to push our company for that,” said Tanuja Gupta, another organizer of the Google walkouts, who has donated $333.82 to Warren’s campaign. “I find it incredibly appealing that there’s a political candidate who’s willing to do that for all workers and end forced arbitration.”
Several donors expressed reservations about Warren’s plan to break up tech companies, including whether it would do enough to address the industry’s problems.
“There’s a lot of attention on social media companies failing to rein in fake posts and fake stories and bots and whatnot,” Backman said. “Breaking up the social networks is not going to do anything to help that.”
But others, wistful for the days when the industry had fewer dominant players and thus more latitude for workers, said Warren’s plan was worth a shot.
“There’s a lot of people in this industry who are amenable to some sort of breakup of big tech,” Few said. “It’s the penance we must pay for allowing this to get out of control.”