This article was originally published in WIRED on 1/30/2020
In mid-November, as his House colleagues on Capitol Hill were consumed with questions about Ukraine and impeachment, Senator Mark Warner took to CNBC’s Squawk Box to discuss what he saw as one of the most important problems facing the country: Fitbit.
Or, more specifically, the danger of allowing Google to swallow up the personal fitness and health-monitoring gadget and its terabytes of consumer data. “The Fitbit deal needs a high, high level of scrutiny,” the Democratic senator from Virginia told anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin. “Large platform companies have not had a very good record of protecting the data or being transparent with consumers. I can’t totally blame them. If Congress doesn’t set rules of the road, asking them to self-regulate is, frankly, just not a viable option.”
Across the board, we as a country need to be hitting pause on the advances of Big Tech, Warner argued, channeling his inner trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt. He sees warning signs flashing all around, like Facebook’s fledgling attempt to launch a digital currency, Libra, and Google’s move into banking. Too much is happening without competition and government oversight, he said. “We have these giant tech platforms entering into new fields before there are some regulatory rules of the road,” Warner told CNBC’s viewers.
“Once they get in, the ability to extract them out is going to be virtually impossible.”
The words coming out of Mark Warner’s mouth throughout 2019 would surely have stunned the Mark Warner who joined the Senate in 2009, amid the wave of techno-optimism that marked Barack Obama’s presidential victory and the early years of his administration. Back then it seemed everyone in Washington, Warner chief among them, thought tech was the solution, not the problem.
Yet more recently, in Donald Trump’s Washington, Warner has evolved into Capitol Hill’s most reluctant and thoughtful tech critic, grilling Facebook, Twitter, and Google executives, lashing out in private and public over their intransigence, and pressing the companies to confront the role their platforms have played in undermining democracy.
As the vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he’s also become one of Capitol Hill’s most vocal advocates urging the country to take foreign technology threats seriously, both the possibility of kinetic real-world cyberattacks (such as disabling power plants or water systems) and already-underway information influence operations like the ones that upended the 2016 presidential election, as well as the looming challenges next-generation technologies pose to national security.
Earlier this month, even as the president’s impeachment trial loomed for the Senate, he introduced—along with the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, North Carolina’s Richard Burr—new legislation aimed at closing the United States’ gap in 5G technologies with China by investing in Western alternatives to Huawei.
“Every month that the US does nothing, Huawei stands poised to become the cheapest, fastest, most ubiquitous global provider of 5G,” Warner said in announcing the new bill. “Widespread adoption of 5G technology has the potential to unleash sweeping effects for the future of internet-connected devices, individual data security, and national security.
Together, his views, advocacy, and legislative work over the past three years have put Warner at the intersection of the biggest stories in American politics—foreign interference in US elections, the evolving consensus that Big Tech is out of control, and the growing tech rift between the US and China.
It’s an unexpected role for a onetime venture capitalist who made a nine-figure fortune helping to usher in the technological age in which we all now live. And the 65-year-old senator remains enmeshed in the culture and politics of technology. His state is one of the top destinations for tech companies outside of the Bay Area (Amazon’s new HQ2 is being built in Arlington). He wears Allbirds—the official sneaker of startup bros—sports an Apple Watch, and dabbles in winemaking. Warner’s dotcom-billionaire friends compare their new Teslas and their private helicopters even as Warner’s political career has thrived thanks to his commitment to the same rural Americans who supported Trump.
Now, as the man who represents one of the country’s most defense-heavy states—home to the Pentagon and the headquarters of 10 of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies—Warner is pressing his colleagues and the US government to reckon with a new age of asymmetric warfare and information operations, a geopolitical landscape where America’s massive Air Force wings, naval fleets, and Army tanks are of little help against Twitter trolls, Facebook bots, deep fakes, and all manner of emerging threats.
As Warner reminds people in almost every set of public remarks, Russia surely spent less on its 2016 election attack than the cost of a single US F-35 fighter jet. “We’re buying 20th-century military stuff, when the conflict in the 21st century is going to be disproportionately in the realm of cyber and misinformation, disinformation, the ability to take down someone’s water system,” he says.
While his current role certainly isn’t where he expected to end up, there’s a deeply familiar aspect to his evolution as someone who has invested in hundreds of startups as a venture capitalist: His experience in the tech world, after all, taught him the art of the pivot. Warner is the first to say that he’s never invested in an entrepreneur who succeeded with their original business plan. “It’s the ones who can shift that succeed,” he told students at his alma mater, George Washington University, while recounting his days in the business world.
He’s followed his own advice in politics too: His recent legislative success and leadership on Capitol Hill occurred only after several aborted attempts to carve out his future in politics. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that Mark Warner—who lately is spending his days as one of the jurors sitting in President Trump’s historic impeachment trial—probably ranked as the most miserable and frustrated man in the Senate.
Warner has long been an intensely political—and social—animal. Raised in a working-class family in Indiana, he came to Washington to attend GWU; he interned on Capitol Hill, and became valedictorian and the first in his family to graduate college. He attended Harvard Law School, where he excelled more outside the classroom—as his class’ unofficial social coordinator and the official women’s intramural basketball coach—than in.
Politics, not law, was always his goal. But first he opted to try to make a financial success in business. Working at the Democratic National Committee in 1980, he found himself haunted by the plight of an unsuccessful Connecticut congressional candidate who finished his race $300,000 in debt. He promised himself that he wouldn’t enter politics until he could afford to lose. Amazingly, after two ventures that failed quickly and brought him to near-ruin—friends recall him couchsurfing with just a 1963 Buick to his name—he succeeded wildly.
With help from a former Atlanta Hawks player, Tom McMillen, Warner realized in the early 1980s that the government was all but giving away radio spectrum that would prove key to the emerging technology of cellular phones. At the time, the licenses were distributed by lottery—but many winners had no real ability to use the spectrum they’d won, so Warner positioned himself as a crucial connector and middleman in what emerged as a market for licenses, perfecting a model where he assembled teams of investors and navigated the license bureaucracy, keeping parts of each deal for himself. In 1987 he helped a business associate found a company called Fleet Call, which grew into Nextel.
Money would never be a concern again.
Freed from financial worry, he turned back to politics, helping to run then Virginia lieutenant governor Doug Wilder’s campaign for the state’s top office, a race Wilder won narrowly, becoming the nation's first elected African American governor. Wilder made Warner the head of the state Democratic Party, and by 1996 he felt ready to challenge the state’s veteran senator, Capitol Hill powerhouse John Warner (no relation). He poured $10 million of his own money into the challenge. Campaign signs that year read “Mark, Not John,” a message that didn’t resonate with every voter: One driver stopped on the side of the road and asked candidate Mark: “Excuse me, sir, is that a biblical reference?”
Mark lost the election, leading to his second stroke of business luck: He was unemployed just as the dotcom boom started. Closely tied into the Northern Virginia tech world—his friends were busy founding a company called America Online—Warner helmed a venture capital fund and was a key figure in an elite social group known as Capital Investors, which brought together the area’s tech leaders for monthly startup pitches. (As much an adult frat as an investment club, one club social at Warner’s house featured AOL’s Steve Case jumping on his bed.) Warner also kept an eye on his political profile, using his tech money to help build job-training and computer skills programs for southwest and Southside Virginia, the commonwealth’s rural regions that had been hit hard by the collapse of the tobacco and textile industries.
That commitment to rural Virginia—which has long been part political strategy and part genuine, sincere cause—proved key to his 2001 run for governor, which he undertook at a moment when Democrats did not control a single statewide office in the commonwealth. Warner, though, bonded with a redneck political consultant named David “Mudcat” Saunders, who built a campaign that paved a path for Democrats in a red state—recruiting sportsmen and hunters in rural Virginia, sponsoring a NASCAR truck, and even penning a bluegrass song that emphasized how Warner, who is rarely seen out of a button-down shirt and khakis, “understands our people, the folks up in the hills.”
The song promoted Warner’s determination “to keep our children home,” a message that he would deliver jobs to rural communities used to seeing their most promising graduates leave for opportunities in the big city. He even convinced the NRA to stay out of the race, promising he’d take care of gun rights. Warner won, handily. “We had a good horse,” Saunders told me, years ago. “You can’t win the Kentucky Derby with a mule.”
Warner, though, actually did deliver for rural Virginia—building more than 700 miles of broadband cable that brought the internet to 700,000 Virginians (and, for good measure, closing the $3.8 billion budget deficit he inherited). He pitched “farm-shoring,” or the idea that rural America could be cost-competitive to emerging offshore tech hubs like Bangalore, and brought the state’s jobless rate to the second lowest in the country.
I first met Warner in 2005, as he was preparing to leave office as Virginia’s governor—the commonwealth has a unique, single four-year term limit—and mulling a run for the presidency, a job he had already coveted for a while. On our first day together—the first of many, as I followed him for months on the campaign trail, to New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, and a host of other stops—I accompanied him as he took a victory lap through rural Virginia, helping to lay broadband cable outside Appomattox.
Warner—wherever he is—is a talker, the life of the party, and that day he was only supposed to ride the cable-laying bulldozer a few yards. But he got to chatting with the ’dozer crew, and as the press, local officials, and assembled schoolkids watched, the governor and the bulldozer got farther and farther away, eventually disappearing over the hill, cable steadily unspooling behind. When he finally returned, he sighed. “The truth is, if I had another go-round [at being governor], I’d take it. There’s a lot of unfinished business.”
Warner set out on the presidential campaign trail in 2006 with a message ahead of its time, talking about how globalization was reshaping work and how towns and cities skipped by broadband would be more economically disadvantaged in the 21st century than those bypassed by the railroads in the 1800s. He said the social safety net needed to be reimagined for an age when workers hopped across jobs and professions.
As he explained at every stop, America’s political differences weren’t between Democrats and Republicans; they were between those who wanted to reclaim the glories of the industrial 1950s versus those who understood the coming technological upheaval: “It’s not about left versus right,” he was fond of saying. “It’s about future versus past.” His hopeful and full-throated embrace of the future was, in many respects, the precise opposite of the backward-looking “Make America Great Again” message that would propel Donald Trump to the presidency a decade later.
As he criss-crossed the country testing the presidential waters, Warner brought along a built-in party—and not the political kind. By nature gregarious and fun, he almost always had one of his wealthy tech friends along for campaign swings. At the end of a long day on the trail, in whatever small place he found himself after another day of “future versus past” speechifying, he was ready to party.
The entourage would drop their bags at the hotel and then find a nearby bar, rolling in for a night of drinking and pool. The evening excursions were a reporter’s dream, as his wealthy friends would compete to pick up the tab. Warner seems to view almost every human interaction as a chance to make a new friend. “Some days I say, ‘Aren’t our current friends enough?’” his wife, Lisa Collis, told me years ago. (Apropos for the party-loving Warner, the couple met at a keg bash in 1984.)
His cell phone fortune became a stump speech punch line on the campaign trail—he’d joke with crowds that he was fine if people left their phones on while he spoke. “Most people consider them an annoyance, but I just hear ‘cha-ching, cha-ching,’” he’d tease. (Today, he’s the fourth-wealthiest member of the Senate—behind Georgia’s Kelly Loeffler, Utah’s Mitt Romney, and Florida’s Rick Scott—with a net worth of about $90 million.)
Ultimately, though, Warner passed on the presidential race. Over dinner at a Virginia restaurant with friends in fall 2006, he walked through the pros and cons and decided he’d rather spend the next years present with his family; his three daughters were growing up fast, and he didn’t want to miss their childhood.
So instead of the White House, Warner pivoted and set his eyes on Virginia’s 2008 US Senate race; a red-state success story, he delivered the keynote at the 2008 Democratic convention, the same slot that Barack Obama had used in 2004 to catapult himself to national notice. Warner trounced his opponent, helping to deliver Virginia’s electoral votes to Obama along the way.
Warner became a member of the institution known as the world’s greatest deliberative body in January 2009—and quickly discovered that he hated almost every single minute of being a senator. By experience and predisposition he was an executive, not a legislator. He liked disruptive ideas, sweeping change, and quick action—not long negotiations marked by tiny advances. “One of the conclusions that I’ve unfortunately come to is that so many of the issues have been litigated and relitigated and relitigated—from tax policy to the deficit to health care to education. One party or another might make some incremental progress, but short of some massive election swing, we’re still fighting in the same place,” he says.
At first, Warner’s interests trended toward finance, but he didn’t get the slot he coveted on the Finance Committee and he chafed under the Senate led by Nevada’s Harry Reid. In the summer of 2010, he and Georgian Saxby Chambliss, a Republican, got to chatting on the Senate floor and saw an opportunity for a big breakthrough on fiscal issues: They gathered a group of moderates into what became known as the “Gang of Six” to attempt a grand compromise on the nation’s debt and deficits.
By negotiating on taxes, spending cuts, Social Security, and deficits, they saw a path to saving the treasury $3.7 trillion. The grand bargain failed. Only later did Warner realize that entrenched leadership on both sides of the aisle had little interest in such an effort. “The forces of the status quo on both sides came crashing down,” he says.
It was a dark time for Warner, who felt he was suffering through what should have been a dream job. “I was frustrated, but I was also self-aware enough to know that I get to do this job on terms very few people get to do,” he says. “I needed a better attitude.”
So the one-time entrepreneur turned his attention to the gig economy, championing legislation known as the Startup Act, and confronting questions he summarized as “Can you make capitalism work a better way? What’s the new social contract?”
Changes in the US economy and on Wall Street, he saw, meant that workplace instability was rising. He talked about how business incentives now favored short-term results over long-term investments—in both humans and capital. “I’m not sure the American post–World War II business environment could have been created if it had all started in the year ’95 or 2000,” he says. He notes that celebrated companies like Google and Facebook featured different classes of stock that have protected them from short-term-ism.
He was confronting what he calls “a growing feeling that modern American capitalism is not working for enough people.” As he says, “That is a pretty radical statement from somebody who’s been an entrepreneur.” He helped launch a new “Future of Work” initiative, housed at the Aspen Institute (where I also work on a separate, unrelated cybersecurity initiative), and proselytized about how to reshape the employer-employee relationship for the 21st century. In almost every conversation on the subject, he cites research from the Kauffman Foundation that found that since 1990 almost all net new jobs in the US have come from startups.
Until 2016, Warner thought that reforming the gig economy through legislation would be his life’s new cause. “I had found something I thought could suck up my energy, time, and curiosity,” he says. “As an old venture capitalist, I felt like I was in a brand new space.”
A couple of years ago, I ran into Warner at a glitzy party at the French Embassy in DC and teased him about how he was still using the same stump speech talking points—not left or right but future versus past. He argued, forcefully, that the world was finally catching up to where he knew things were heading. The theoretical problems he’d been talking about in 2006, the looming problems of automation, the workforce, and the gig economy, were now all coming clear a decade later. “Come on now, there’s some meat on those bones,” he told me.
But Warner’s career was set for one more big pivot.
In 2016, Donald Trump won the office Warner had long coveted for himself, helped along by a Russian cyberattack and campaigning on a message about economic insecurity that raised many of the issues Warner had been talking about for a decade.
As the nation reeled—both from Trump’s surprise electoral college victory and the unprecedented attack by Russia on the foundations of American democracy—Warner, through a reshuffling of committee assignments, found himself the new vice-chair of Senate Intelligence, the top representative of the Democratic minority on the committee that would lead the body’s inquiry into Russia’s efforts.
Warner had never meant to end up on the Intelligence Committee. But his old Gang of Six partner Chambliss had chaired the committee and recruited him into it during the previous congress. Warner was encouraged by his old campaign adversary, John Warner, to embrace the new assignment. (The two one-time opponents have become good friends and Mark proudly keeps a USS John Warner hat in his Senate office.)
Chambliss says he had wanted Warner’s expertise on the committee in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, as telecommunications policy moved to the center of the intelligence community. The body needed someone who knew telecoms, Chambliss thought, especially the constellation of communications satellites that represent the committee’s single priciest line item in an annual intelligence budget of $60 billion. “He understood satellites, and nobody else on the committee understood them beyond them being very expensive,” Chambliss recalls. “In the intelligence world, we deal with the telecom industry every day.”
After the 2016 election, as Warner and the new Republican chair, North Carolina’s Richard Burr, started their own investigation into Russia’s attack, the two senators made a pact: We’re not going to agree on everything, but no surprises. As the parallel investigation by the House Intelligence Committee devolved in a circuslike partisan farce under its Republican chair, Devin Nunes, the team behind the Senate inquiry worked tirelessly to maintain at least the veneer of bipartisanship. “It was obvious they were going to be the adults in the room,” says Chambliss, explaining that he gave Burr and Warner a firm message together at the start of their probe: “At the end of the day, it’s too important for the country for y’all to do this together and have a document that you can both sign.”
The committee’s bipartisan we do everything together approach wasn’t always easy, but, incredibly, Warner and Burr’s deal held. Whereas Nunes parroted Trump talking points and ultimately published a “final report” that Democrats refused to accept, exonerating the administration while ignoring and never examining large swaths of the swirling questions about Russia’s role in the attacks, Burr and Warner forged ahead with an in-depth examinations of the information influence operations by the Internet Research Agency and GRU. In the end they published two massive reports detailing precisely how Facebook trolls and Twitter bots amplified divisive messages, spread propaganda, and seeded disinformation into social media platforms.
Those reports remain a touchstone of the reality-based political establishment today, even as the president and his supporters continue to cast doubt on Russia’s involvement in election interference, preferring instead to cast blame on Ukraine—an obsession that led directly to Trump’s impeachment.
“My Republican colleagues knew I was not going to be a partisan flamethrower,” Warner says. “I’m proud of that traditional behavior in a world where there’s very little traditional behavior. The fact that that looks so good—that the bar had been set so low—was rewarding but a little surprising.”
As the Russia probe continued, the problem the country faced expanded in Warner’s mind from “just” a Russia problem to broader questions about the roles and power of the big tech platforms. “The Russian disinformation efforts opened the door to a whole host of Warner concerns about social media,” says Rachel Cohen, one of his senior staff. “People were telling him this wasn’t a disinformation problem—this was a platform problem.”
A particular turning point for Warner came when he hired as his senior policy adviser Rafi Martina, a one-time corporate tech lawyer who was beginning to argue for a radical rebalancing of tech’s power. As Warner explains, “Before all this unsavory behavior was starting to take place, he was already pointing out to me behavior by Google and Facebook and Twitter that was not great policy, not being fair to users. He was opening my eyes.” Then came the scandals over Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data, broadening Warner’s concerns to not just the platforms and their algorithms but their use and retention of private user data too.
It was a moment of reckoning for someone who had long championed the new economy. “I was probably pretty naive,” Warner says. “I bought the story that these are only forces for good and are going to help everyone communicate better and build new communities. But in retrospect I think I'm probably pretty naive to not have thought through that anything that’s this big, there’s going to be a dark underbelly.”
Warner’s growing sense that major reforms and new legislation were needed to govern the tech landscape only grew last spring when Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing horrified him—both because of the lack of contrition from the Facebook cofounder and because his Capitol Hill colleagues fumbled even basic tech questions.
By last summer, he had come to believe that both Facebook and Twitter had been less than forthcoming to his committee, downplaying the extent of Russian efforts in the election—efforts made all too clear in special counsel Robert Mueller’s 2018 indictments of the Internet Research Agency and Russian military intelligence officers from the GRU. “They were just not straight with me for a long time,” Warner says.
Warner’s frustration with the tendency of the platforms to misuse and abuse their growing clout was evident in a groundbreaking 20-point white-paper released by Warner’s office in 2018. It decried the power amassed by Twitter, Facebook, Google, and other tech platforms and aimed at reforms to combat disinformation, protect user privacy, and promote competition.
Blandly titled “Potential Policy Proposals for Regulation of Social Media and Technology Firms,” the document actually represented one of the most serious attempts to outline a regulation regime for tech ever to come off Capitol Hill. As the 23-page paper—drafted by Warner and Martina—argued, “The speed with which these products have grown and come to dominate nearly every aspect of our social, political, and economic lives has in many ways obscured the shortcomings of their creators in anticipating the harmful effects of their use.”
The paper reflected Warner’s rising concern that there’s a fundamental rot at the center of the major sites dominating today’s online life: “These maybe were not only forces for good,” he says. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other big players may trumpet how they’re changing the world, but, Warner argues, they don’t operate in the public interest—to inform people, to protect users’ privacy, to further our freedoms. They’re engineered to be addictive.
As he says, “You don’t follow a story about a bloody car wreck with a story about how somebody’s promoting good driving techniques. You follow it with something that’s slightly even more gruesome. That's what’s happening.”
In his paper, Warner speaks about the “duty” of tech platforms to police bots, calls for new disclosure requirements on online political advertisements and audit-able algorithms, proposes new powers for the Federal Trade Commission to regulate privacy, and calls for comprehensive European-like legislation in the US.
He cites tech thinkers like Tristan Harris, Wael Ghonim, and Tom Wheeler, all of whom are part of the informal network of advisers Warner regularly consults. He endorses a concept floated by Yale Law professor Jack Balkin for tech platforms to become “information fiduciaries,” service providers with a special duty to protect and manage user data.
The irony of Warner leading the crackdown on the tech platforms is that he’s really a free-market capitalist at heart, viewing policy challenges often as market opportunities. During a visit to Norfolk, Virginia, he once pivoted from talking about the danger of flooding caused by climate change to suggest that the market for sump pumps looked bright. Similarly, he talks excitedly about how giving people stronger ownership over their own data online might open the way to new “data middlemen” who help negotiate prices and access with the platforms and advertisers.
The commitment to these wider questions, from deepfakes to quantum computing, are part of what has made Warner’s efforts in tech stand apart in a body that too often seems populated by Luddites. (In one particularly egregious example a year ago, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai had to explain to one congressmember that Google didn’t make iPhones.)
When I tagged along on one of Warner’s visits to a home state tech company in Arlington, Warner enthusiastically lectured me on the insanity of the federal government’s internet of things procurement policies.
The senator, who seemingly can’t contain his own energy even when he wants to, mixed the tech talk with turn-by-turn directions for the aide driving our car. He’s been pushing the government to raise the security bar for incorporating IoT devices into federal networks and installations—he’s worried that too many technologies and devices are racing ahead of the government’s rules.
The federal government, he said, has proven it can’t even get many of the basics of cybersecurity right when it comes to securing databases and personnel information, so why, he asks, is it racing to incorporate IoT devices into government infrastructure? “If I worked at a rational place, we wouldn’t be increasing the attack surface exponentially,” he said, then he interrupted himself to tell the aide to move over to the middle lane.
It’s no surprise he knows the road better than the aide’s Google Maps. Warner, after all, is a creature of the capital—he’d never call it a swamp—and has made the region home nearly since he attended GW. His annual Pilgrim’s Lunch—a rowdy day-before-Thanksgiving gathering of the region’s elite at DC’s fading power lunch spot, The Palm, where the meal stretches to five hours or more—has been a tradition in the capital for decades. He watched the Pentagon burn on 9/11 from the roof of his gubernatorial campaign headquarters, and unlike most of his congressional colleagues who commute in from their districts on Mondays and race home on Thursdays, his house in Old Town Alexandria isn’t far from his workplace. “To misquote Sarah Palin, I can see the Capitol from the third floor of my house,” he jokes.
Warner’s own evolving views on technology have proven to be in the vanguard of a sweeping sea change in the way tech is seen on Capitol Hill and on the presidential campaign trail. The idea—all but unthinkable just a few years ago—that Big Tech is, well, too big, dangerous to our democracy, and dangerous for our health as consumers, has spread rapidly.
In May, one of Warner’s Senate colleagues, Missouri’s Josh Hawley, labeled platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter a “digital drug” in a USA Today op-ed, arguing, “Maybe social media’s innovations do our country more harm than good. Maybe social media is best understood as a parasite on productive investment, on meaningful relationships, on a healthy society. Maybe we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared.”
Other measures on Capitol Hill have tried to rein in just-around-the-corner technologies like facial recognition. The current 116th Congress has seen Senate efforts both to regulate corporate use of facial recognition as well as to put limits on its use by police.
In some ways, Warner’s views—as unexpected as they are for someone of his background and as radical as they would have sounded even three years ago—now represent the moderate view of his party.
As she’s campaigned for president, his Senate colleague Elizabeth Warren has gone even further, calling for the outright breakup of Amazon, Facebook, and Google. As she wrote in a post on Medium in March, “Today’s big tech companies have too much power—too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.” Senator Bernie Sanders has backed similar ideas, and one of the main lines of attack on Pete Buttigieg has been his friendship with Harvard classmate Mark Zuckerberg.
Yet even as it seemed that most of his fellow Democratic senate colleagues—Warren, Sanders, Michael Bennet, and, until recently, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker—are running for president and even as Mike Bloomberg and Deval Patrick leapt into an ever-shifting field of candidates, Warner’s name never surfaced for president in 2020. He has long harbored presidential ambitions, but today they appear all but on ice.
Instead, Warner has committed himself to remaining in the Senate, where he’s happier than he’s ever been, even amid the administration’s daily chaos and the negativity that pervades the capital.
“What’s given me the new lease on energy and enthusiasm about the job has clearly been the Russian issue,” he says. “Even if I’m not successful in these other areas, getting [the Russia probe] right, at least for the time being, is probably the most important thing I’ve done, which I don’t say lightly considering all the aspirations I’ve had my whole career.”
It’s those big geopolitical questions—and their intersection with technology and its intersection with national security—that most animate Warner. One of the oddities of work on the Senate Intelligence Committee is that much of the heavy lifting is done by the members themselves—the classified nature of the work severely limits how much work can be delegated to staff—and so he’s spent many hours sifting through the evidence of Russia’s attack in 2016, listening to briefings from government officials on emerging threats, and examining how and where the US government is spending its resources. He’s clearly not happy with what’s he’s learning.
As much as his work publicly has focused on the Russia probe, he says that what he’s hearing behind the closed doors of the Intelligence Committee’s workspace makes him worry as much, or even more, about China. “Russia is a more malicious actor. China is a more insidious actor,” he tells me. “My views on China are radically different than what they were three years ago.”
It’s another area where he’s found common bipartisan ground, working closely on China and 5G issues with Florida’s Marco Rubio. Together, they asked the intelligence community in early March for a report on how China was exerting pressure and influence on international standard-setting bodies related to 5G, noting “anecdotal concerns” that China is undermining what have long been “technological meritocracies.” He’s also been cohosting, with Rubio, classified briefings for tech leaders and venture capitalists to hear about the threat from China and discuss how the US should counter China’s efforts in areas like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
He fears that the US is moving too slowly to counter China’s march in tech, repeating mistakes the government made in failing to recognize legitimate fears about embracing Russian technology. “We would sit in the intel committee and hear for years about Kaspersky Labs. It took us three or four years to push the intelligence community to say, ‘You can’t just tell us. You’ve got to get the stuff off the damn GSA acquisition list.’ You take that times 20 with the Chinese,” he says. “If we don’t do more of this, people will look back on Congress and the intel community and certain business leadership and say, ‘What in the hell were you people thinking?’”
He sees his new 5G legislation to combat Huawei—known in the always-acronymized style of Capitol Hill as the Utilizing Strategic Allied (USA) Telecommunications Act—as a step on that path. The proposed bill also comes with the backing of Republican senators Rubio, Bob Menendez, and John Cornyn (plus Colorado’s moderate Democrat Michael Bennett), all of whom serve on the body’ss intelligence or foreign relations committees. It attempts to counter Huawei’s perceived lead on 5G by earmarking at least a $1 billion in investments in Western alternatives and encouraging the development of an open-architecture model to allow companies to bite off smaller pieces of the 5G network.
Not even the heated, partisan impeachment trial can distract Warner from raising the alarm: The day after Chief Justice John Roberts swore Warner and 98 other senators in as jurors, Warner again took to the airwaves to push his effort to confront China’s technological advances. His message was clear: “5G and the issue of Huawei has been over the last year been a bipartisan issue,” he told Bloomberg TV in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building. “This is one area where there are a lot of us who are in agreement with the administration.”
One reason Warner says he’s so committed to regulating Big Tech is, paradoxically, the need to preserve tech as a uniquely American strength. As Warner sees it, America’s failure to act has ceded its traditional leadership role to others—to Europe on consumer privacy and to the UK and Australia on content restrictions.
In the absence of federal action, individual states like California are now taking the lead on regulating tech, a potentially troublesome precedent that Warner fears could lead to a patchwork of laws that slow innovation and retard growth. Letting others—whether Europe or China—set the rules of the road for technology is dangerous, he says, both in terms of American values and economic growth. In Warner’s mind, saving tech as an economic driver for the United States might mean blowing up Big Tech as we know it.
He hopes that his work will help lead the nation forward into the next tech age. Warner tells me that he’s already seen the conversation shift, dramatically even, as the country has reckoned with the twin scandals of the Russia attack and general abuse of the tech platforms. “On the Hill, there’s very much a mind change. We can’t continue to be victims all the time online,” he says. “We can’t keep getting pummeled.” Or, to put it another way, the senior senator from Virginia may have found his next bulldozer to ride over the hill.