Aug 19, 2020 - Politics & Policy

How tech is sidelined at the conventions it's powering

Illustration of a laptop with balloons on the screen and a long power cord going off the frame

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In the not-so-distant past, major tech firms made a splashy presence at the national political conventions. This year, they're taking a much quieter role.

The big picture: Silicon Valley and Washington continue to keep each other at arm's length — even though the conventions are only possible in the pandemic era with a vital assist from tech products and platforms.

What's happening: Many tech companies are working to bring content to their users from both this week's Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee and next week's Republican National Convention in Charlotte. Some are still quietly donating tech services, as they have in years past.

Yes, but: The firms are pulling back from making themselves a part of the action.

  • That's a break from as recently as 2016, when attendees of both conventions took breaks from schmoozing at workspaces with snacks and swag sponsored by Google or Facebook; Big Tech firms threw after-parties; and people crowded into tiny imitation Oval Offices that Instagram built for photo ops.

The coronavirus pandemic, of course, makes that sort of convention experience impossible. But tech companies aren't coming up with virtual alternatives or otherwise working to directly ingratiate themselves with digital conventioneers of either party.

"Technology companies have chosen to distance themselves from the national political conventions this year due to factors well beyond COVID," Jenna Golden, former head of political ad sales at Twitter who ran point on Twitter's live convention spaces in 2016, told Axios.

  • "Between Russian interference in the 2016 election and the tech CEOs having to testify on Capitol Hill, the relationship between politics and big tech has become incredibly strained, making these performative gestures like financial contributions and fancy setups at live events less relevant and potentially risky," she said.

Here's what major tech companies are doing: People can watch the conventions on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon Prime Video and Microsoft's Bing.

  • Facebook is providing "virtual technical support" to both conventions and their digital teams, spokesperson Katie Derkits told Axios.
  • Google's YouTube said in a blog post it's a "destination with a front seat for major election events." and it's a major destination for both parties' streaming efforts.
  • Twitter, which last fall banned political ads and said it won't make financial contributions to either convention, will prominently feature convention livestreams and related tweets and point people to accurate information about voting, spokesperson Nick Pacilio told Axios.
  • Spotify is getting involved for the first time, partnering with C-SPAN to put key speeches from both conventions on its platform as podcasts, spokesperson Taylor Griffin told Axios.
  • Cisco worked with the Milwaukee and Charlotte host committees to adapt their convention plans, and Cisco networking tech is being use for speakers, delegates, meetings and operations, a Cisco spokesperson told Axios. Cisco Webex will also be used for many of the live video meetings.
  • Apple hasn't announced any plans involving the conventions, nor have there been any reports that it might get involved by, for instance, donating equipment.
  • Microsoft is making technology available for use such as its Skype TX platform for getting broadcast-quality feeds from video calls, a spokesperson said.
  • Amazon confirmed that it's donating tech support and services to both conventions.

What to watch: Whether any major convention speakers will mention Big Tech in their speeches, as antitrust concerns swirl and tech gets criticism on the left and right. (There was a reference to rural broadband Tuesday night.)

  • Thursday night looks like the likeliest bet for that. That's when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who made breaking up Big Tech a key tenet of her presidential campaign, and Andrew Yang, who pilloried tech giants including Amazon on the campaign trail, are both slated to speak.
  • There's nothing much about tech policy on the DNC's schedule of "virtual policy roundtables," though Microsoft president Brad Smith will be speaking at a panel on closing the homework gap and Amazon senior vice president Jay Carney will be on a panel about creating jobs in the heartland.
  • More concrete details about the RNC schedule aren't available yet.
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