McCarthy’s love-hate relationship with Silicon Valley

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy once said that his vision was “to have government as innovative as Google, customer-centric as Apple, and as quick as Amazon.”

Now, he’s the man charged with leading the GOP’s battle against Big Tech — a position that will become particularly important if his party wins back the House and he becomes speaker next year. He put out a policy framework last year to “stop the bias and check big tech,” laying out a plan to rein in giants like Google and Amazon if Republicans regain power.

Some Silicon Valley lobbyists are skeptical that McCarthy would actually enact policies that hurt their companies. After all, the California lawmaker spent years distinguishing himself as their top advocate among congressional Republicans. They say he still maintains that friendliness behind closed doors.

“He generally is more measured in private conversations with the companies,” said Katie Harbath, who worked at Facebook for more than a decade after joining as the first Republican employee in the company’s Washington, D.C., office. Harbath left Facebook late last year. She said, off camera or out of earshot, McCarthy acknowledges that he rails against Big Tech due to pressure from his fellow members. “But at the end of the day, I think he understands more than most that Facebook’s got to do what they’ve got to do, and he’s got to do what he’s got to do, and it’s all part of the political game of Washington,” Harbath said.

Steve DelBianco, president and CEO of right-leaning tech trade group NetChoice, said McCarthy’s “fundamental free-market instincts are still there.” DelBianco added that he views McCarthy’s antagonism toward the Big Tech companies as nothing more than political messaging. “McCarthy is reflecting what his caucus does to fundraise and motivate base voters,” DelBianco said. NetChoice counts Amazon, Google and Facebook among its members.

Even some of McCarthy’s own colleagues don’t think his heart is into his new, anti-Big Tech kick, noting, among other things, that he’s opposed to the major bipartisan antitrust push that could effectively break up the tech giants. When POLITICO asked Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), the Republican leading that bipartisan antitrust push, about his thoughts on McCarthy’s anti-Big Tech rhetoric, Buck replied with a question of his own: “He’s anti-Big Tech?”

Allies of the GOP leader say that McCarthy’s extensive criticism in recent years is a manifestation of a party growing increasingly frustrated with large tech platforms — a frustration fanned by former President Donald Trump, who has been booted off a few of those platforms. Even as he maintained that McCarthy’s position was not political, Matt Sparks, the congressman’s spokesperson, said his boss’ viewpoint was at least in part derived from the sentiment among voters.

“Our position today is simply a reflection of what our constituents are seeing and facing and feeling on the platforms,” said Sparks, later adding that the GOP leader is not anti-technology.

McCarthy speaks with business executives to address concerns from fellow lawmakers and constituents, he said. And if someone with a personal connection to McCarthy — who just happens to represent a Big Tech company — dials up the congressman, he’s going to pick up the phone, Sparks said.

There are a number of tech representatives with those connections. Frederic Barnes is a lobbyist at TikTok who worked for McCarthy. George Caram served as the congressman’s senior legislative assistant for science, space and technology and now represents Apple. Brian Worth, former director of coalitions for McCarthy, lobbies for Amazon and Wing, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Jeff Miller, a political adviser to McCarthy, also represents Apple and Amazon.

McCarthy’s relationship with the Big Tech companies was initially marked by public flattery and a mutually beneficial back-and-forth. Even during his time as a California state legislator in the early 2000s, McCarthy saw the potential of these companies as a force for good, Sparks said. On several occasions between 2011 and 2013, McCarthy led delegations of congressional Republicans on tours of the Silicon Valley campuses of Google and Facebook, even nabbing some face-to-face time with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. He has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign and PAC donations from Silicon Valley companies and tech executives over the course of his congressional career.

“He had this goal of converting Silicon Valley to be more Republican,” said one former House leadership staffer who worked under McCarthy and now represents several Big Tech companies. “In his mind, those folks should have been supporting Republicans from a policy standpoint — because business policy-wise, Republicans are better than Democrats for them for their businesses and innovation.”

A video from 2012 shows McCarthy lavishing praise on Facebook and Twitter at their booths at the Republican National Convention.

At that time, Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple were all powerful companies, but they hadn’t yet become the powerhouses in the world economy that they are today. Facebook’s market capitalization was $50 billion when McCarthy, flanked by former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and then-House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), participated in a public interview in 2011 at Facebook’s headquarters with Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Today, Facebook’s market cap stands at roughly $932 billion.

But it wasn’t just the economics of Silicon Valley’s tech behemoths that initially drew Republicans like McCarthy. Republicans engaged with social media companies because there was something powerful about being able to communicate outside the bounds of legacy intermediaries like traditional media, said John Stipicevic, McCarthy’s former deputy chief of staff for floor operations and member services who is now a lobbyist for, among other clients, Microsoft.

Now those same companies are far different — and, the way many GOP lawmakers in the House see it, are “going into overdrive to silence and censor conservatives and anyone who thinks differently from their expansive liberal workforce,” Stipicevic said.

“The Republican position is simply a representation of their constituents' concerns,” he continued. “Leader McCarthy since his days as Majority Whip, has always had a pulse on the Conference. And it is pretty clear where most members are.”

The allegation that major social media platforms were censoring conservative voices first began bubbling up as a conservative rallying cry in 2016, amid controversy over reports that Facebook employees intentionally suppressed articles from right-leaning news sources. Researchers have since shown that conservatives receive more engagement on social media than liberals.

McCarthy didn’t jump into the anti-Big Tech fray until around 2018, when Google search results listed the ideology of the California Republican Party as “Nazism” during the primary. (Google blamed Wikipedia for the error.)

Brendan Carr, the senior Republican on the Federal Communications Commission, said McCarthy’s thinking has evolved alongside the Republican Party’s. “A very short time ago, we saw a party that in too many instances put corporate interests at the top of their legislative agenda,” Carr said. He pointed to McCarthy’s framework and the accompanying policy proposals from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, as an example of the party pivoting to respond to a changing tech industry.

“If you go back to 2012, 2013, 2014, those Silicon Valley corporations did not have the massive power that they have today, and they certainly were not exercising the power they did have in a way that was so directly contrary to some of our core values in this country including free speech,” Carr said.

“The decisions that large corporations have chosen to make, in terms of putting their corporate interests so clearly in conflict with individual liberty, caused some real rethinking for a lot of people in the conservative space,” said Carr, who has worked with McCarthy’s office on proposals to take on Big Tech. (Carr is married to McCarthy’s general counsel.)

The fervor against Silicon Valley on the right has only intensified since Twitter, Facebook and YouTube booted Trump from their platforms last year and followed by exiling several MAGA conservatives this year. Earlier this month, McCarthy called for paring back Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, social media’s prized legal liability shield, after Twitter suspended Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) personal account.

Republicans have also objected to tech and telecom companies’ cooperation with the House Select Committee investigation of Jan. 6. Earlier this year, McCarthy threatened retribution for those companies, including Apple, who provide email or phone records to the committee.

"I think McCarthy's a very reasonable politician,” said Republican lobbyist Sam Geduldig, who also represents, among other clients, Microsoft. “It’s not hard to figure out Kevin McCarthy. He cares about voters and the politicians that those voters elect.”

Lobbyists for the Big Tech companies, however, say McCarthy is more open to hearing their perspective than his rhetoric indicates. Two lobbyists told POLITICO that, even as Speaker Nancy Pelosi has entirely shut out Facebook from her offices, McCarthy will always take their calls and has assured them that he still respects the tech industry.

“I don't think his public antagonism towards Big Tech should not be taken as being anti-tech,” said one lobbyist who represents major tech companies.

Miller, one of McCarthy’s closest friends on K Street, riled up GOP lawmakers last year as he lobbied aggressively against a set of bipartisan trust-busting bills aimed at paring back the power of the tech’s behemoths. Miller is a registered lobbyist for both Apple and Amazon, two companies that the antitrust overhaul would directly affect. As Miller was lobbying against the package in Congress, McCarthy publicly announced his opposition to the bills.

In its place, McCarthy has proposed a narrower set of antitrust reforms, including proposals to expedite the court process with direct appeal to the Supreme Court in antitrust cases and to empower state attorneys general to lead the charge against the tech giants. But anti-monopoly advocates say that McCarthy’s ideas don’t go far enough and would not change the law to account for the conduct of the largest tech firms.

“They obviously don’t want antitrust,” said Matt Stoller, director of research for the left-leaning advocacy group American Economic Liberties Project. “That’s their history, it’s their track record. They opposed the antitrust investigation of Big Tech, they oppose these laws. There literally is nothing to indicate that they want to do anything but protect Silicon Valley.”

McCarthy has, instead, made it clear that he would prioritize speech issues, including paring back Section 230 for the largest social media platforms, if the GOP takes over power in the House.

McMorris-Rodgers and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, would play powerful roles in tech policy should Republicans take back control. And they say they are serious about enacting McCarthy’s framework.

“We’re focussed on winning back the majority — we haven't done that yet, so I don't want to get ahead of things,” Jordan told POLITICO in an interview. “But if, Lord willing, we win it back, and Lord willing, I get to be chairman, we’ll look at definitely Section 230.”

“I think overall Kevin's just done a great job of keeping the team together,” Jordan said. “And I think he’s like, seeing like everyone else in the country, when you kick off a sitting member of Congress and the president … something's got to change.”

Buck, the Republican who is leading the bipartisan antitrust push in the House, was skeptical that changing Section 230 would rein in Big Tech’s power. At the same time, he observed that they are “major political players and spend a lot of money in this town.”

“Big Tech wants changes to 230,” Buck said. “That’s not something they’re opposing."