EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
The young senator from Illinois looked at ease as Google’s top lawyer, David Drummond, introduced him at the “Candidates at Google” series at the company’s main campus in Mountain View, California, in November 2007. Barack Obama gave a brief speech about the virtues of globalization and “network neutrality”—the principle that Internet service providers should not discriminate against certain sources of content in favor of others—and pledged to run an open, tech-savvy administration.
Once the candidate crossed his legs and relaxed into the leather seat on the Google stage, then-CEO Eric Schmidt began his questions: “What is your fundamental reason why you think this company—this country, excuse me—is going to be a great country?” The crowd of Google employees giggled. Obama replied that “I have taken on the special interests in the past and have won.… Washington has become captive of special interests that are making decisions not based on reason, not based on competition, not based on innovation, but all too often based on who’s got the most juice, who’s got the most clout.”
At the time, there was very little doubt that this BlackBerry-toting son of an immigrant would become Silicon Valley’s candidate. He understood more than the Valley’s buzzwords; he professed to share its commitment to open dialogue, open networks, limited regulation, immigration reform, global connectivity, empirically based (or, in corporate-speak, “data-driven”) decision-making, civil liberties, and that mysterious religious force we call “innovation.” As the primary season unfolded, Schmidt became an outspoken supporter. Obama’s campaign would also masterfully leverage the connective power of Facebook to tailor ads for prospective voters. Many Silicon Valley luminaries would suspend their libertarian inclinations and either endorse or contribute to the more regulation-friendly senator.
As we look back at eight years of the Obama administration’s technology policies, though, we find a record that only partially satisfies the Silicon Valley agenda, while falling significantly short in areas like intellectual property, antitrust, and—most significantly—privacy and surveillance. It has been a rude awakening for the Valley’s entrepreneurial idealists, and for American citizens.
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Ultimately, Google got the most juice, the most clout. As a 2016 investigative report by The Intercept revealed, “Google representatives attended White House meetings more than once a week, on average, from the beginning of Obama’s presidency through October 2015. Nearly 250 people have shuttled from government service to Google employment or vice versa over the course of his administration. No other public company approaches this degree of intimacy with government.” Former Googlers who went to work for the Obama administration include current US Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, former head of the White House Office of Social Innovation Sonal Shah, and former deputy chief technology officer Andrew McLaughlin.