When Pete Buttigieg joined Facebook as a Harvard undergrad in 2004, he was the 287th user registered on the site. The social networks founders were friends of friends, and it felt like an insular message board for Harvard classmates, he remembered in an interview in San Francisco last week.
“I dont think any of us could have guessed what implications that technology would have in the long run,” Buttigieg said.
Fifteen years and 2.4 billion users later, as Facebook wrestles with cascading scandals over data privacy, misinformation and election meddling on its platform, Buttigieg has become one of several presidential contenders calling for tougher regulation of the company and Silicon Valleys other biggest tech firms.
The debate over Facebooks future took on new resonance last week as one of the companys co-founders, Chris Hughes, published a New York Times op-ed calling for the tech giant to be broken up. Buttigieg said Hughes, his former Harvard classmate, “made a very convincing case” that no company “should have the type of power that… these tech companies have.”
But unlike Sen. Elizabeth Warren, he hasnt endorsed breaking up the tech giants, instead suggesting “a spectrum” of regulation that could include fines, blocking new mergers or splitting up companies. Thats attracted criticism from some on the left who want the candidates to take a strong stance on issues of corporate power.
Buttigiegs vaguer position comes as the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has courted support from Silicon Valley, attending a packed schedule of fundraisers around the Valley and San Francisco on Friday.
In the first three months of 2019, Buttigieg received at least $27,250 in donations from employees of Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon, the fifth-highest total among the Democrats running for president. Hughes also gave him $2,700 (while donating to several other 2020 Democrats as well). Meanwhile, his campaign has spent about $181,000 on Facebook ads, less than a fifth of the amount spent by Sens. Kamala Harris or Warren.
“Here in the Bay Area, weve been waiting for a new generation that is going to redefine politics, and I think Petes going to do it,” said Adam Hundt, a tech worker who met Buttigieg in college and co-hosted one of his fundraisers. “Tech is all about change, and the way Pete has an open mind and embraces change makes him a natural fit.”
Buttigieg was two years ahead of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at the Ivy League school, and was a senior when Zuckerberg, Hughes and their co-founders launched the site from a dorm room. Buttigiegs account is the 287th on the network (although a few of those before him were created as tests) — if you go to facebook.com/287 while signed into Facebook, the Harvard grads original page, which he still updates, will pop up.
At the time, following his friends on Facebook felt like “a curiosity,” and an improvement over services like MySpace, Friendster or AIM, Buttigieg said. In recent years, hes used his page to share photos from his deployment to Afghanistan in the Navy Reserve and post pictures and videos of life in South Bend. (He has separate pages for his presidential campaign and mayors office.)
When Zuckerberg embarked on a cross-country trip to see more of the U.S. in 2017 — attracting rumors about his own presidential ambitions — he stopped by South Bend to meet with Buttigieg, connected by a mutual Harvard friend. The mayor drove the tech mogul on a tour of the city, as Zuckerberg streamed live video from his cell phone on the dashboard of Buttigiegs car.
Zuckerberg and Buttigieg stayed in touch, and they last spoke earlier this year, his campaign said.
As Buttigieg explained to Zuckerberg on the tour, hes also worked to attract tech investment to his Rust Belt hometown, helping open a data center on the site of an abandoned Studebaker plant and transforming other old factories into glassy work spaces for startups.
“What theyve done to revitalize the city is pretty remarkable,” marveled Matt Rogers, the co-founder of the smart home company Nest and an investor whos been to the city multiple times at the mayors invitation. “You go out to dinner in South Bend and the streets are full of millennials, and there are great restaurants that feel like youre in San Francisco.”
Rogers, whos hosted fundraisers for Buttigieg, said he found the candidate to be “literate, fluent and deeply knowledgeable” about tech issues.
Buttigieg has suggested that that tech know-how is missing in D.C. He criticized the congressional hearings featuring Zuckerberg and other tech executives last year, which he called “political theater where very little actually got achieved.”
“What we saw was a spectacle of people in charge of regulating a very powerful force demonstrating that they had no concept of what it was they were in charge of overseeing — which is incredibly dangerous,” Buttigieg said, arguing that political leaders “need some kind of literacy in these technologies, what they mean and more importantly what they can do, in order to regulate properly.”
“This is not necessarily an age thing, although I think it helps to have grown up with these technologies at your fingertips,” he added.
Meanwhile, Buttigieg has toed the line between criticizing tech companies and voicing a more sympathetic perspective.
He said Friday that “a lot of people here in the tech sector still have a David mentality when theyve increasingly turned into Goliath.” But he added that he believes tech companies are making policy decisions “perhaps, not necessarily with bad intentions,” and said he was struck by how many of Silicon Valleys executives have “become very introspective” and are “really reflecting on what they wrought.”
That more diplomatic approach — and Buttigiegs avoidance so far of calling for breaking up companies like Facebook — “has been a personal sigh of relief for a lot of people in the tech industry,” said Jacob Helberg, a tech policy advisor whos hosted fundraisers for the candidate.
While most of the other top Democrats are also playing coy on the issue, Buttigiegs refusal to be pinned down has frustrated tech critics who see it as a defining debate in the party.
“He is going for Silicon Valley money and he wants to express some nod to the problems but he doesnt want to offend anyone powerful,” said Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute and an advocate of splitting up the tech giants. “Take a position.”
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