In 2017, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a ride around South Bend, Indiana, to show off his company’s video streaming product, Facebook Live. From the passenger’s seat, he asked the driver, his former Harvard classmate and the city’s young mayor, “What do you think we need to do to get more folks like you to run for mayor and state legislature… to make it so the values of this generation can get reflected in policies?”
The driver, Pete Buttigieg, answered in the vague, rambling way you might expect from a politician with his eyes on the road. “You don’t need some magical touch to be in leadership,” he said. “A lot of those same caliber of talent who used to go to Wall Street or” – he glanced meaningfully at Zuckerberg – “Silicon Valley are now drawn to cities or to communities…”
Thirty-seven-year-old Buttigieg, with degrees from Harvard and Oxford and consulting experience at McKinsey & Company, is among those of such “caliber.” Next to septuagenarians like Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg, he looked like the grandson gamely willing to fix one of their malfunctioning iPads (this is not my original idea – the sentiment has been echoed across news outlets and Twitter). This would, as some of his millennial supporters imagine, translate to a more robust knowledge of modern technology, and therefore more informed policies.
While that was up for debate, what Buttigieg shared with many in his generation, was a relative lack of wariness of Big Tech’s power. Unlike Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders insisting that as President they’ll “break up Facebook,” Buttigieg appeared all too keen to implicate the little guys in issues surrounding data privacy along with (or perhaps to distract from) the major players. In a July interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher, Buttigieg took the time to tell listeners that Cambridge Analytica was not considered a “massive player” when it used millions of non-consenting Facebook users’ data to influence the 2016 presidential election.
But the company got all its data from Facebook, Swisher reminded.
“These data security problems exist in a way that is not fully dependent on how big or small companies are,” Buttigieg replied. “For that reason, breaking up a company isn’t going to make those problems go away.”
This stance makes sense in the context of Buttigieg’s many Silicon Valley supporters. They included Doordash CEO Tony Xu, the head of Facebook’s Libra initiative David Marcus, Groupon founder Andrew Mason, and venture capitalist and early Facebook executive Matt Cohler. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings hosted a fundraising event for Buttigieg in Northern California, as did Nest Labs co-founder Matt Rogers and director of product communications at Uber, Chelsea Kohler.
Silicon Valley influence existed within Buttigieg’s campaign, too. As Fast Company reported in November, 12 of the campaign’s staffers used to work at “big tech” companies. Pete for America’s senior digital analytics adviser, Eric Mayefsky, served as an analyst then manager at Facebook in the early 2010s, while some of his current colleagues previously held jobs at Google and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (a tech solutions company founded by Priscilla Chan and husband Zuckerberg). One former Buttigieg campaign volunteer even worked at MakerDAO, according to LinkedIn.
Now he’s dropped out, Buttigieg won’t be winning the Democratic nomination, but his quick traction in the public eye means he could remain a voice in the national discourse for years to come. As such, it’s worth learning what the U.S.’s youngest presidential candidate had to say about an industry that his generation was largely responsible in shaping, from his thoughts on antitrust reforms and the “right to forgotten” to his ideas about blockchain-based online citizenship and Facebook’s approach to launching the digital currency Libra. Across these issues, Buttigieg was careful not to alienate those in the tech industry, while appeasing those wary of it by proposing federal regulations.
RChain, a Seattle-based blockchain computing cooperative (steeped in debt), recently suggested Buttigieg is “using the fact that he’d be the youngest president ever to leverage progressive personal data ownership legislation — just the type of platform blockchain was designed to address.”
I’ve been unable to find an instance of Buttigieg explicitly proposing a blockchain solution to data ownership problems. However, he has referenced Estonia, where citizens can do everything from file taxes to vote and fill prescriptions online, as a positive example of a country practicing effective digital citizenship. The Estonian government secures all of this information using blockchain technology, which would reveal if hackers attempted to meddle in citizens’ records.
Meanwhile, Buttigieg lamented to Swisher, “The closest thing we have to an ID number is a Social Security number,” and the best way we have to authenticate our identities is via physical birth certificates.
Despite Buttigieg’s outwardly friendly relationship with Facebook’s Zuckerberg – not to mention his donations from Libra’s David Marcus – the former mayor of South Bend wasn’t bullish on Libra, Facebook’s in-the-works digital currency. He wanted Facebook to work on tackling its privacy issues before concentrating on newer projects like a payments rail for the underbanked, according to a spokesperson from his campaign.
It was also important to Buttigieg that Facebook ensures Libra will not be used for nefarious purposes when it is launched, the spokesperson added, and that all risks with the centralized digital currency be explored beforehand. Buttigieg exhibited knowledge of cryptocurrencies in denoting the difference between the centralized Libra — controlled by its now 21 Libra Association members including Uber, Spotify, Andreessen Horowitz and Coinbase – and decentralized currencies like bitcoin (BTC).
Meltem Demirors, chief strategy officer of digital asset investment firm CoinShares, who testified before Congress as an expert during the Libra hearings, told CoinDesk, “Given that [Buttigieg] will be part of the [Democratic National Committee], I am very doubtful that his policies on crypto and on Libra will be so much different from his peers in the Democratic Party.”
Before Andrew Yang exited the Democratic primaries, he had a dedicated following of crypto-savvy supporters and was the only Democratic candidate to meaningfully address decentralized currencies. With Yang gone, Buttigieg was thought to be, de facto, the most crypto-savvy candidate left – but that’s not saying much.
“I don’t think Buttigieg is particularly focused on cryptocurrencies,” said Demirors. “I think he is very focused on courting Silicon Valley.” Though Buttigieg hasn’t publicly addressed cryptocurrency, a spokesperson from his campaign told me he understands where traditional banks have failed to serve the poor, both at home and abroad. Done right, Buttigieg believes, some cryptocurrencies could help those typically excluded from the system gain access to banking services, such as allowing them to send micropayments. Understanding this and wanting to establish a system that allows this, however, are two very different things.
When discussing Buttigieg and the tech industry, supporters tended to come back to the candidate’s age. “Seeing someone from my generation be in the running to be a serious candidate for president is not only inspiring, but I think it’s relatable,” said John Chickering, a 34-year-old client services director at a technology startup in Denver, who’s among the small group of people that fall into the center of the Buttigieg supporter/crypto fan Venn diagram. Chickering described himself as a “bit of a bitcoin maximalist.” He likes that Buttigieg is a “digital native” with a “data driven perspective on things.”
Of a Mayor Pete presidency, Chickering said, “I’ve absolutely thought before, this is good for bitcoin.”
“I’m as skeptical as anybody about some of the harms tech can do,” Buttigieg told Swisher during their July interview, after she asked why he hadn’t “attacked tech” as much as other democratic candidates. “Having witnessed innocence as well as harm of my generation thinking up these tech platforms,” he went on, we’re “now wrangling with the consequences of what has been created. [It] requires us to be thoughtful and not just reach for the pitchforks.”
"I think there’s a strong case for [breaking up tech giants.] The reason I don’t think it makes sense for me to say as a candidate, 'This company shall be broken up,' is the same reason I wouldn’t generally say of the outcome of a trial in a judicial process."Buttigieg told the New York Times's editorial board in January 2020
Buttigieg added he doesn’t see it as a politician’s “job” to name which specific companies are too big – though he did go on to call Facebook’s 2014 acquisition of Whatsapp “questionable” and brought up “the way Amazon privileges its own goods.”
Other times, Buttigieg seemed comfortable naming names. As a spokesperson from his campaign told CoinDesk over email, Buttigieg said he “supports the ongoing antitrust probes of online platforms by the Justice Department, FTC, and state attorneys general and will double antitrust enforcement budgets,” specifically calling out “large online platforms such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon.”
Ultimately for Buttigieg, breaking up big tech companies wasn’t “off the table,” but the double negative is telling. For candidates like Sanders and particularly Warren, breaking up the likes of Facebook is very much on the table, whereas for Buttigieg, it felt more like a last resort. Antitrust legal reforms would likely have come first, such as those that put the burden on “certain large companies” to show their acquisitions won’t “hurt competition,” as he told Swisher, “rather than the government carrying the burden of proof.”
Data privacy and misinformation
Along with his fellow democratic candidates, Buttigieg noted tech platforms’ past follies – to put it lightly, as Buttigieg often does. When he was at his most direct, he acknowledged such platforms “can be hijacked to become tools of foreign influence campaigns [and] have facilitated the spread of patently untrue information and false political ads.”
"[P]latforms have abused our trust and can be hijacked to become tools of foreign influence campaigns. They have facilitated the spread of patently untrue information and false political ads that have the potential to undermine our basic democratic values... We need to modernize our approach to privacy, antitrust enforcement, and competition policies to help restore trust and ensure that technological progress benefits all people."Buttigeig wrote for Vox, on Dec. 5, 2019.
To combat this, said Buttigieg in a statement provided by a Pete for America spokesperson, he planned to work with Congress to “pass a comprehensive federal privacy bill that protects users and prohibits companies from exploiting data to the detriment of users.” More specifically, he planned for data collectors to adhere to obligations similar to those “doctors and lawyers have to their clients,” which would mean they’d have to abide by a high degree of confidentiality unless otherwise agreed upon.
Such a bill could look a little like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, at least in terms of its “right to be forgotten” clause, which gives citizens the right to have their personal data erased. As Buttigieg told Swisher, “I think the right to be forgotten needs to be encoded” in federal law. He clarified that this would refer to data people “hand to a company” that the company then profits from, as opposed to deleting factual information that has been published.
Rural broadband access
As a professed champion of the industrial Midwest, Buttigieg committed to increasing rural broadband access. The candidate said he would put $80 billion toward expanding internet coverage via both public and private partnerships, according to an August 2019 IndyStar article. The same article mentions Buttigieg’s interest in restoring net neutrality, which economist Michael Hicks told IndyStar might conflict with Buttigieg’s plans to use private resources to increase access to broadband internet.
“I believe our economy depends on ensuring that small businesses are able to get the same fair shot as large companies in the marketplaces of the 21st century,” Buttigieg said, via a campaign spokesperson.
Though Buttigieg didn’t directly address this, he repeatedly acknowledged the rivalry between the U.S. and China, further noting a diametric opposition of the two nations’ approaches to capitalism.
“Beijing seems committed to consolidating and legitimizing authoritarian capitalism,” Buttigieg told the Council on Foreign Relations in July, pitting it against “the democratic capitalism embraced by the United States.” Wary of Chinese authoritarianism and how the country is outpacing the U.S. in advancing new tech, Buttigieg likely saw China’s embrace of blockchain in issuing a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) as a considerable threat.
As far as Buttigieg was concerned, the threat lies in China speeding ahead of the U.S. If the U.S. could come out with its own digital currency, that’s something Mayor Pete might get behind. After all, he was open to the idea of cryptocurrency as a way to provide banking services and other banking innovations, as a spokesperson from his campaign told CoinDesk.
Talking the talk
Chickering’s read of Buttigieg as “relatable” makes sense coming from someone who works in the tech industry. Buttigieg speaks in a way that a product manager like Chickering can understand. “I appreciate the seriousness that [Buttigieg] approaches things with,” he said, “and his attitude of explaining how he will actually execute.”
Chickering believes Buttigieg, because of his age and experience working at McKinsey, will “advocate to use the best tech we have at our disposal.”
This confidence and interest in Buttigieg didn’t extend widely among crypto enthusiasts. There was nary a mention of Buttigieg on crypto Twitter. Neeraj Agrawal, prolific tweeter and communications director at cryptocurrency think tank Coin Center, told CoinDesk he hasn’t seen anyone there discussing the candidate. “I actually don’t know anything about his tech platform,” he said. But perhaps that will change.
“My instinctual feelings about Pete Buttigieg today are very similar to my feelings about bitcoin circa 2015,” Chickering said. “I know personally that he makes a ton of sense, but it’s not yet clear if everyone else will see what I see.”