For Republicans running for the Senate this year, “Big Tech” has become a catchall target, a phrase used to condemn the censorship of conservative voices on social media, invasions of privacy and the corruption of America’s youth — or all of the above.
But for three candidates in some of the hottest races of 2022 — Blake Masters, J.D. Vance and Mehmet Oz — the denunciations come with a complication: They have deep ties to the industry, either as investors, promoters or employees. What’s more, their work involved some of the questionable uses of consumer data that they now criticize.
Mr. Masters and Mr. Vance have embraced the contradictions with the zeal of the converted.
“Fundamentally, it is my expertise from having worked in Silicon Valley and worked with these companies that has given me this perspective,” Mr. Masters, who enters the Republican primary election for Senate in Arizona on Tuesday with the wind at his back, said on Wednesday. “As they have grown, they have become too pervasive and too powerful.”
Mr. Vance, on the website of his campaign for Ohio’s open Senate seat, calls for the breakup of large technology firms, declaring: “I know the technology industry well. I’ve worked in it and invested in it, and I’m sick of politicians who talk big about Big Tech but do nothing about it. The tech industry promised all of us better lives and faster communication; instead, it steals our private information, sells it to the Chinese, and then censors conservatives and others.”
But some technology activists simply aren’t buying it, especially not from two political newcomers whose Senate runs have been bankrolled by Peter Thiel, the first outside investor in Facebook and a longtime board member of the tech giant. Mr. Thiel’s own company, Palantir, works closely with federal military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies eager for access to its secretive data analysis technology.
“There’s a massive, hugely profitable industry in tracking what you do online,” said Sacha Haworth, the executive director of the Tech Oversight Project, a new liberal interest group pressing for stricter regulations of technology companies. “Regardless of these candidates’ prospects in the Senate, I would imagine if Peter Thiel is investing in them, he is investing in his future.”
Mr. Masters, a protégé of Mr. Thiel’s and the former chief operating officer of Mr. Thiel’s venture capital firm, oversaw investments in Palantir and pressed to spread its technology, which analyzes mountains of raw data to detect patterns that can be used by customers.
Palantir’s initial seed money came from the C.I.A., but its technology was adopted widely by the military and even the Los Angeles Police Department. Mr. Masters and Mr. Thiel personally pressed the director of the National Institutes of Health to buy into it.
Dr. Oz, the Republican nominee for an open Senate seat in Pennsylvania, was part of a consortium of investors that founded Sharecare, a website that offered users the chance to ask questions about health and wellness — and allowed marketers from the health care industry the chance to answer them.
A feature of Sharecare, RealAge Test, quizzed tens of millions of users on their health attributes, ostensibly to help shave years off their age, then released the test results to paying customers in the pharmaceutical industry.
Mr. Vance, the Republican nominee in Ohio and another Thiel pupil, used Mr. Thiel’s money to form his venture capital firm, Narya Capital, which helped fund Hallow, a Catholic prayer and meditation app whose privacy policies allow it to share some user data for targeted advertising.
The Vance campaign said the candidate’s stake in Hallow did not give him or his firm decision-making powers, and Alex Jones, Hallow’s chief executive, said private, sensitive data like journal entries or reflections were encrypted and not sold, rented or otherwise shared with data brokers. He said that “private sensitive personal data” was not shared “with any advertising partners.”
All three Senate candidates have targeted the technology industry in their campaigns, railing against the harvesting of data from unsuspecting users and invasions of privacy by greedy firms.
“These companies take this data and sell precisely targeted ads so effective they verge on predatory,” Mr. Masters wrote in an opinion article last year in The Wall Street Journal. “They then optimize their platforms to keep you online to receive ever more ads.”
In a gauzy video posted in July 2021, Mr. Masters says, “The internet, which was supposed to give us an awesome future, is instead being used to shut us up.”
Mr. Vance, in a campaign Facebook video, suggested that Congress make data collection illegal — or at least mandate disclosure — before technology companies “harvest our data and then sell it back to us in the form of targeted advertising.”
In a December video appearance soon after he announced his campaign, Dr. Oz proclaimed, “I’ve taken on Big Pharma, I’ve gone to battle with Big Tech, I’ve gone up against agrochem companies, big ones, and I’ve got scars to prove it.”
It is not surprising that more candidates for high office have deep connections to the technology industry, said Michael Rosen, an adjunct fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who has written extensively about the industry. That’s where the money is these days, he said, and technology’s reach extends through industries including health care, social media, hardware and software and consumer electronics.
“What is novel in this cycle is to have candidates ostensibly on the right who are arguing for the government to step in and regulate these companies because, in their view, they cannot be trusted to regulate themselves,” Mr. Rosen said.
He expressed surprise that “a free-market, conservative-type candidate thinks that the government will do a fairer and more reliable job of regulating and moderating speech than the private sector would.”
Technology experts on the left say candidates like Mr. Masters and Mr. Vance are Trojan horses, taking popular stances to win federal office with no intention of pursuing those positions in the Senate.
Ms. Haworth, whose group has taken aim at platforms like Facebook and Amazon, said states like California were already moving forward with regulations to prevent online marketers from steering consumers to certain products or unduly influencing behavior.
She said she believed that Republicans, if they took control of Congress, would impose weak federal rules that superseded state regulations.
“Democrats should be calling out the hypocrisy here,” she said.
Mr. Masters said he was sympathetic to concerns that empowering government to regulate technology would only lead to another kind of abuse, but, he added, “The answer in this age of networked monopolies is not to throw your hands up and shout ‘laissez-faire.’”
Multinational technology firms like Google and Facebook, Mr. Masters said, have exceeded national governments in power.
As for the “Trojan horse” assertion, he said, “When I am in the U.S. Senate, I am going to deliver on everything I’m saying.”
It is not clear that such complex matters will have an impact in the fall campaigns. Jim Lamon, a Republican Senate rival of Mr. Masters’s in Arizona, has aired advertisements tarring him as a “fake” stalking horse for the California technology industry — but with limited effectiveness. At a debate this month, Mr. Lamon said Mr. Masters was “owned” by his paymasters in Big Tech.
But Mr. Masters, who has the endorsement of former President Donald J. Trump, appears to be the clear favorite for the nomination.
Representative Tim Ryan, Mr. Vance’s Democratic opponent in Ohio, has made glancing references to the “Big Tech billionaires who sip wine in Silicon Valley” and bankroll the Republican’s campaign.
John Fetterman, the Democratic opponent of Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania, has not raised the issue.
Taylor Van Kirk, a spokeswoman for Mr. Vance, said he was very serious about his promises to limit the influence of technology companies.
“J.D. has long been outspoken about his desire to break up Big Tech and hold them accountable for their overreach,” she said. “He strongly believes that their power over our politics and economy needs to be reduced, to protect the constitutional rights of Americans.”
Representatives of the Oz campaign did not respond to requests for comment.