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I'm anti-Google, please elect me: Senate hopeful rides tech backlash

Missouri attorney general Hawley hopes to tap into ire against Silicon Valley

By Kieren McCarthy in San Francisco

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In another sign that anti-tech sentiment is rising in the United States, the Attorney General of Missouri is using his stance against Google as a platform to run for a Senate seat this November.

Republican Josh Hawley was elected to his position in January 2017, having drawn the notable financial support of age-defying venture capitalist Peter Thiel, but less than a year into the job announced he would stand against Democratic senator Claire McCaskill in this year's mid-term elections.

Just a few weeks later, Hawley launched a formal investigation into Google over whether it has broken Missouri's anti-trust laws through its "collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities" as well possible manipulation of search results. It gained him national press and attention.

"There is strong reason to believe that Google has not been acting with the best interest of Missourians in mind," Hawley said at the time. "My Office will not stand by and let private consumer information be jeopardized by industry giants, especially to pad their profits."

Now, with his candidacy formally announced, Hawley has returned to his anti-tech campaign as a way to differentiate himself in what will be a bruising political battle for a critical Senate seat.

"We need to have a conversation in Missouri, and as a country, about the concentration of economic power," Hawley said in an interview this week with Bloomberg, even though nothing much is happening in the case right now.

Hawley said he will decide whether to bring charges against Google this summer in what is a transparent effort to make it an election issue.

Partisan, partisan, partisan

And he has found a way to make concerns over the monopolistic nature of the search engine giant a partisan issue: by arguing that the Democrats were soft on Big Tech when in power.

"The Obama administration was not eager to take a close look at the behavior of some of these tech companies, particularly those that were ideologically aligned," he told Bloomberg. "My worry is, to be frank with you, that we’re drifting towards a form of corporatism."

It's a difficult line to walk: the overweening power of corporations is normally associated with the small-government, pro-business Republican party.

But thanks to the closeness of Google to the Obama Administration, and the fact that Silicon Valley – based in heavily Democratic California – is increasingly being painted in right-wing circles as skewing online activities in favor of left-leaning politics, it may work as an effective campaign.

Attacking Big Tech could resonate with both Republican circles and soft Democrats who don't like monopolies and powerful corporations. The fear that Google and its peers are storing information on everyone and possibly censoring content may also hit a nerve in the independently minded American psyche.

It's notable that one of Hawley's biggest backers is Peter Thiel, whose open support of Donald Trump has made him such an outcast in Silicon Valley that he has decided to move to Los Angeles.

Of course, as Thiel tells it, he is moving because he's tired of groupthink in the Bay Area. It's also worth noting that he supported first Ron Paul, then Mitt Romney, then Paul Ryan, then Carly Fiorina, and then Ted Cruz before finally supporting Trump once everyone else had dropped out.

Now, according to the great man himself, those other candidates that he gave huge sums of money to are "Republican zombies."

Money, money, money

Thiel gave Josh Hawley $300,000 in both 2015 and 2016 as he campaigned to become Missouri's attorney general. It's unclear how much of an ear Thiel's money bought him, but some see Thiel's strategic thinking behind Hawley anti-tech stance; Thiel is, after all, the man who secretly funded a legal campaign by Hulk Hogan against scandal-rag Gawker in revenge for the publication outing him as gay several years earlier.

Hawley is not the only one in public office seeking to ride a wave of anti-tech sentiment. The chair of the FCC, Ajit Pai, has repeatedly criticized Silicon Valley in an effort to introduce age-old divisive politics into a subject that has broad support across the political spectrum: net neutrality.

Pai had repeatedly cited groundless claims that liberal tech companies are censoring right-wing causes and voices as a way to diminish their strong criticism of his plans. And he cherry-picked celebrity critics in an effort to make the issue of control of content appear as a left-right matter.

In short, concerns over Big Tech's power – especially that of Google and Facebook – have become sufficiently widespread that power-hungry folks believe they could translate into election votes.

You couldn't have imagined that a few years ago when tech companies could do no wrong and politicians lined up to support them, and cash their checks. ®

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