For Republicans running for the Senate this yr, “Big Tech” has turn out to be a catchall goal, a phrase used to sentence the censorship of conservative voices on social media, invasions of privacy and the corruption of America’s youth — or all the above.
But for 3 candidates in a few of the hottest races of 2022 — Blake Masters, J.D. Vance and Mehmet Oz — the denunciations include a complication: They’ve deep ties to the industry, either as investors, promoters or employees. What’s more, their work involved a few of the questionable uses of consumer data that they now criticize.
Mr. Masters and Mr. Vance have embraced the contradictions with the zeal of the converted.
“Fundamentally, it’s my expertise from having worked in Silicon Valley and worked with these firms that has given me this angle,” Mr. Masters, who enters the Republican primary election for Senate in Arizona on Tuesday with the wind at his back, said on Wednesday. “As they’ve grown, they’ve turn out to be too pervasive and too powerful.”
Mr. Vance, on the web site of his campaign for Ohio’s open Senate seat, calls for the breakup of enormous technology firms, declaring: “I do know the technology industry well. I’ve worked in it and invested in it, and I’m sick of politicians who talk big about Big Tech but do nothing about it. The tech industry promised all of us higher lives and faster communication; as a substitute, it steals our private information, sells it to the Chinese, after which censors conservatives and others.”
But some technology activists simply aren’t buying it, especially not from two political newcomers whose Senate runs have been bankrolled by Peter Thiel, the primary outside investor in Facebook and a longtime board member of the tech giant. Mr. Thiel’s own company, Palantir, works closely with federal military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies longing for access to its secretive data evaluation technology.
“There’s an enormous, hugely profitable industry in tracking what you do online,” said Sacha Haworth, the chief director of the Tech Oversight Project, a recent liberal interest group pressing for stricter regulations of technology firms. “No matter these candidates’ prospects within the Senate, I’d imagine if Peter Thiel is investing in them, he’s investing in his future.”
Mr. Masters, a protégé of Mr. Thiel’s and the previous chief operating officer of Mr. Thiel’s enterprise capital firm, oversaw investments in Palantir and pressed to spread its technology, which analyzes mountains of raw data to detect patterns that might be utilized by customers.
Dr. Oz, the Republican nominee for an open Senate seat in Pennsylvania, was a part of a consortium of investors that founded Sharecare, a web site that offered users the prospect to ask questions on health and wellness — and allowed marketers from the health care industry the prospect to reply them.
A feature of Sharecare, RealAge Test, quizzed tens of tens of millions of users on their health attributes, ostensibly to assist shave years off their age, then released the test results to paying customers within the pharmaceutical industry.
Mr. Vance, the Republican nominee in Ohio and one other Thiel pupil, used Mr. Thiel’s money to form his enterprise capital firm, Narya Capital, which helped fund Hallow, a Catholic prayer and meditation app whose privacy policies allow it to share some user data for targeted promoting.
The Vance campaign said the candidate’s stake in Hallow didn’t give him or his firm decision-making powers, and Alex Jones, Hallow’s chief executive, said private, sensitive data like journal entries or reflections were encrypted and never sold, rented or otherwise shared with data brokers. He said that “private sensitive personal data” was not shared “with any promoting partners.”
All three Senate candidates have targeted the technology industry of their campaigns, railing against the harvesting of knowledge from unsuspecting users and invasions of privacy by greedy firms.
In a gauzy video posted in July 2021, Mr. Masters says, “The web, which was imagined to give us an awesome future, is as a substitute getting used to shut us up.”
Mr. Vance, in a campaign Facebook video, suggested that Congress make data collection illegal — or at the very least mandate disclosure — before technology firms “harvest our data after which sell it back to us in the shape of targeted promoting.”
In a December video appearance soon after he announced his campaign, Dr. Oz proclaimed, “I’ve taken on Big Pharma, I’ve gone to battle with Big Tech, I’ve gone up against agrochem firms, big ones, and I’ve got scars to prove it.”
It just isn’t surprising that more candidates for top office have deep connections to the technology industry, said Michael Rosen, an adjunct fellow on the conservative American Enterprise Institute who has written extensively in regards to the industry. That’s where the cash is lately, he said, and technology’s reach extends through industries including health care, social media, hardware and software and consumer electronics.
“What’s novel on this cycle is to have candidates ostensibly on the correct who’re arguing for the federal government to step in and regulate these firms because, of their view, they can’t be trusted to control themselves,” Mr. Rosen said.
He expressed surprise that “a free-market, conservative-type candidate thinks that the federal government will do a fairer and more reliable job of regulating and moderating speech than the private sector would.”
Technology experts on the left say candidates like Mr. Masters and Mr. Vance are Trojan horses, taking popular stances to win federal office with no intention of pursuing those positions within the Senate.
Ms. Haworth, whose group has taken aim at platforms like Facebook and Amazon, said states like California were already moving forward with regulations to stop online marketers from steering consumers to certain products or unduly influencing behavior.
She said she believed that Republicans, in the event that they took control of Congress, would impose weak federal rules that superseded state regulations.
“Democrats needs to be calling out the hypocrisy here,” she said.
Mr. Masters said he was sympathetic to concerns that empowering government to control technology would only lead to a different type of abuse, but, he added, “The reply on this age of networked monopolies just isn’t to throw your hands up and shout ‘laissez-faire.’”
Multinational technology firms like Google and Facebook, Mr. Masters said, have exceeded national governments in power.
As for the “Trojan horse” assertion, he said, “Once I am within the U.S. Senate, I’m going to deliver on all the things I’m saying.”
It just isn’t clear that such complex matters may have an impact in the autumn campaigns. Jim Lamon, a Republican Senate rival of Mr. Masters’s in Arizona, has aired advertisements tarring him as a “fake” stalking horse for the California technology industry — but with limited effectiveness. At a debate this month, Mr. Lamon said Mr. Masters was “owned” by his paymasters in Big Tech.
But Mr. Masters, who has the endorsement of former President Donald J. Trump, appears to be the clear favorite for the nomination.
Representative Tim Ryan, Mr. Vance’s Democratic opponent in Ohio, has made glancing references to the “Big Tech billionaires who sip wine in Silicon Valley” and bankroll the Republican’s campaign.
John Fetterman, the Democratic opponent of Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania, has not raised the difficulty.
Taylor Van Kirk, a spokeswoman for Mr. Vance, said he was very serious about his guarantees to limit the influence of technology firms.
“J.D. has long been outspoken about his desire to interrupt up Big Tech and hold them accountable for his or her overreach,” she said. “He strongly believes that their power over our politics and economy must be reduced, to guard the constitutional rights of Americans.”
Representatives of the Oz campaign didn’t reply to requests for comment.