The Congressman Who Doesn’t Use Google
“If I see something I think is unfair, I just don’t buy the product,” says Buck, who sits behind his desk in the Rayburn House Office Building. He wore a dark, lightly checked suit, his gray hair was cut short; he was drinking his oatmeal breakfast from the house cargo, a hat that said “Make America Great Again” on the shelf behind him.
For the past nearly two years, Buck has orchestrated a Capitol Hill boycott by one person or attempted to orchestrate a number of companies that most in Washington could hardly give up: Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter. These corporations, he argues, use their incredible power to unfairly destroy small competitors, abuse user privacy for profit, indulge the Chinese government with impunity, and censor conservatives. (Corporations, of course, deny doing any of these things.)
Buck urged his Republican colleagues to renounce campaign donations from these companies. But Buck goes a little further personally. He doesn’t search the web with Google, he says. He instructs his employees not to order from Amazon. He doesn’t even use Facebook to communicate with his family. “If you want to talk to me, give me a call,” he says. It is, says Buck, a “matter of conscience”.
What changes from “quirky member of Congress” to meaningful, however, is that Buck also happens to be one of the people in Washington most responsible for overseeing Silicon Valley.
Ten months ago, Buck took the Republican Party’s top position on the Antitrust Subcommittee of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. The subcommittee spent more than a year and a half studying competition in digital markets, and when it delved into the work, it says, it was appalled. He came to believe that Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook were harassing competitors, persecuting their users, and generally abusing their considerable power over the lives of Americans. “As a prosecutor, that was really offensive to me. These are crimes, ”he says. “These are people who belong behind bars.”
(Corporations, of course, reject the idea that their executives belong behind bars.)
Joe Biden’s Washington is busy with what to do with the American tech industry, and this summer, Buck’s own subcommittee approved a comprehensive series of bipartisan bills aimed at containing the Big Four, as they are called. (Twitter, a much smaller company than the rest of the world, is largely evading antitrust scrutiny.) Buck is optimistic that at least some of them will become law, but in the meantime, he’s leading what he calls “my little personal protest.”
Liberals do not have a monopoly on conscious consumption, he says. He crosses his fingers. “AOC and Ken Buck, just like that,” he says and laughs.
How does it look for a member of Congress to swear by some of the most popular and ubiquitous technologies found in modern life?
His politics can make things uncomfortable. In mid-September, Buck was one of the keynote speakers at a nearly full-day POLITICO virtual event on Washington’s relationship with the American tech industry. But the session was hosted on a platform optimized for Google’s Chrome browser that Buck swore by. Carefree music on hold played for 18 long minutes while his staff worked to log him in.
Says Buck: If his staff had told him beforehand and said, ‘Well, that’s going to use Google, I would have, you know, [said] ‘red flag.’ “
On Tuesday, Buck had a reporter seen trying to cope with daily life on Capitol Hill without the tools of great technology.
“I don’t want to offend the congressman, but I’m not sure I believe him, ”said Daniel Kahn Gillmor, Senior Staff Technologist at ACLU, when confronted with the idea that Buck should avoid Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook.
Gillmor, like Buck, is concerned about the control of the tech tools that companies put over people’s daily lives. He also doesn’t use most of the social networks, but says he’s having trouble giving up the Big Four completely: “You can’t be pure and still get involved in the modern world.”
People who completely forego social media and other big tech products are sometimes referred to as “digital vegans”. Buck inevitably turns out to be more of a digital flexitarian. Shortly after lunch, he has a meeting with a Republican colleague in the neighboring Longworth Building. On his way through the marble corridors, he takes out his cell phone, which is wrapped in a case with an American flag. So, he says, he knows where to be and what to do.
It’s an iPhone too. Like in an Apple iPhone. Buck gets it. The in-house IT department offers offices a choice of two types of officially sanctioned phones: iPhones and Samsung phones with the Android operating system. But Android is supported by Google, so Buck had to choose between two of Silicon Valley’s giants. (Buck is hardly alone in his decision: According to House Information Resources, around 99 percent of the more than 10,000 mobile devices in the house are iPhones.)
Buck opens his color-coded calendar on his iPhone. If this were in the late 1990s, Buck could be in trouble: it’s Microsoft Outlook, and then Microsoft was Washington’s flagship for bad tech industry behavior. The Justice Department settled its antitrust case with the company in 2001, and today Buck sees Microsoft less as part of the oligarchy than as a sensible alternative. Its search engine, Bing, rivals that of Google, and it owns LinkedIn, a challenger to Facebook.
“I have no problem with big tech,” says Buck. “I have a problem with monopolies and how they use their monopoly power.”
“If he were to renounce Microsoft, he’d be screwed,” says Bradford Fitch, president of the non-partisan Congressional Management Foundation. That’s because Microsoft is built into the running of the house – it’s the default setting for everything from email to calendars to web conferencing.