Ron Wyden Is Pushing Big Tech’s Interests, Despite Wife’s Investments

ron wyden big tech

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has led a public crusade to demand that the Biden administration push Big Tech’s anti-regulation agenda worldwide — despite the fact his wife owns up to $3 million worth of stock in major tech companies that could benefit from the effort, according to financial disclosure records. 

Wyden has long been an ally of the tech industry, and his wife is quite wealthy. Ethics experts tell Rolling Stone that the situation does not violate any laws or congressional ethics rules, but could pose a conflict of interest. 

A Wyden spokesperson disputed that notion, asserting that Wyden and his wife have separate finances and “do not discuss their work.” He argued that Wyden has been a vocal critic of Big Tech companies and their approach to privacy.

Last fall, United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced the U.S. was withdrawing support for proposals to enshrine the tech industry’s preferred anti-regulatory framework in international trade negotiations, on the basis that the language could hinder debates over domestic tech policy. Wyden has pressed President Joe Biden to reverse the move, criticizing it as “a win for China, plain and simple.” Officials within Biden’s National Security Council have joined Wyden’s cause.

The obscure, but high-stakes policy fight is playing out as world trade leaders get ready to meet next week at the World Trade Organization’s 13th Ministerial Conference conference in Abu Dhabi.

Critics say the so-called “digital trade” framework promoted by Big Tech would help the industry preempt stricter regulations around data privacy and security, artificial intelligence, and app store competition — on a global level. They argue the language, first proposed during the Trump administration, would eliminate the possibility of new tech rules in the U.S., and nullify regulations that are already in place abroad. 

Lori Wallach, director of the Rethink Trade program at American Economic Liberties Project, tells Rolling Stone that Big Tech “has been trying to insert binding rules into trade agreements that internationally preempt and shut down domestic regulation, and Sen. Wyden has been the leader for this.”

“If the current Biden administration position were reversed back to the Big Tech agenda,” she says, “the best policies — from Korea’s App Store competition law, to European privacy and antitrust policies, to Canada and Australia’s laws requiring platforms to compensate news outlets for the content the platforms use, which are all replicated in U.S. congressional bills with bipartisan support — would become targeted as illegal trade barriers that countries have to eliminate or face sanctions.”

The reviews service Yelp made similar arguments in a letter to Biden, writing that “Big Tech firms are seeking to harness … international trade negotiations to preempt domestic policies that would prohibit their anticompetitive practices.”

According to Wyden’s most recent financial disclosure, his wife, Nancy Bass Wyden, owns up to $1 million in Apple stock; $1 million in Microsoft; $500,000 in Amazon; and $500,000 in Google. 

Bass Wyden — who owns the famed New York bookstore, the Strand — is ultra-wealthy: She is worth at least $46 million, according to a Rolling Stone review of her husband’s 2022 financial disclosure and local property tax records for the New York City building she owns. Most of her wealth is tied up in that property — a city landmark that houses the Strand, which her family has operated for nearly a century.

Even with that property, valued at $39 million, Bass Wyden’s Big Tech holdings account for a small but significant percentage of the couple’s combined assets. Exclude that building, and her Big Tech holdings represent a fifth of their disclosed assets.

The stocks are held in a Fidelity managed account, according to the senator’s most recent financial disclosure. They do not appear to be held in a blind trust.

Wyden is not among the small number of Senate Democrats who have signed onto legislation that would ban stock trading by members of Congress and require lawmakers, their spouses, and dependent children to either divest their stock holdings or put them in a blind trust. 

“The investments and virtually all of the assets you listed are owned by Nancy Bass Wyden,” Wyden spokesperson Keith Chu said in an email. “Sen. Wyden and Ms. Wyden keep their finances separate, including filing taxes separately, and do not discuss their work.”

He added, “Sen. Wyden has been sharply critical of Big Tech companies, introducing a bill to outlaw their primary business model, calling on the FTC to investigate Apple and Google for their role in the collection and sale of Americans’ personal data, and writing a separate bill that would allow prison time for Mark Zuckerberg for repeated violations of Americans’ privacy, among other things. He has also introduced a bipartisan bill to restrict exports of Americans’ personal data to unfriendly countries like China.”

Chu separately argued the digital trade proposal that the USTR abandoned would not only benefit the tech industry, and that a range of voices have “raised concerns about the decision, including human rights advocates, small tech companies, foreign relations experts, and groups like the Association of American Publishers, Motion Picture Association, National Association of Manufacturers, and National Retail Federation that compete with Big Tech and rarely share policy goals.” 

“There is broad agreement from experts in this space that USTR’s action will harm U.S. interests and boost China’s efforts to dominate the internet,” he wrote.

Rolling Stone spoke with five ethics experts about Wyden’s advocacy for Big Tech’s trade agenda and his wife’s investments. They all agree the situation raises ethical questions. 

“Why does she need to sit on up to $3 million worth of high tech stocks when he’s making these decisions?” says Richard Painter, who served as President George W. Bush’s chief White House ethics lawyer. “Why didn’t she just sell that and put it in broad-based mutual funds?”

Craig Holman, an ethics lobbyist at Public Citizen, says the situation “does pose a conflict of interest.” 

“Whether it is affecting Ron Wyden’s official actions is only a matter of speculation, but it certainly has the appearance of a conflict of interest,” he says, adding: “I am a little surprised that Sen. Wyden would put himself in this situation. I’ve got a great deal of respect for the senator. And he often works with me on ethics issues.”

In late November, Wyden issued a press release calling for Biden to overrule his own trade representative and embrace Big Tech’s digital trade agenda. Wyden and the letter’s co-signatories argued that doing so would “allow the free flow of information across borders, protect against the forced transfer of American technology, and promote open markets for digital goods exported by American creators and businesses.”

He organized a bipartisan letter opposing Tai’s decision, signed by 14 of his Democratic colleagues.

House Democrats have pushed back on Wyden’s campaign. Earlier this month, 88 of them sent a letter to Biden supporting Tai and her move to withdraw the digital trade proposals.

“It is a credit to your presidency that Ambassador Tai is proceeding in a manner that respects Congress’ role in setting domestic policy and that honors your digital competition, privacy, and artificial intelligence (AI) oversight goals, which we also support,” they wrote, adding: “We are concerned that trade negotiations on certain digital rules could get ahead of Congress’ domestic policymaking.”

Wallach, the Rethink Trade director, argues that Big Tech is trying to enact, through binding trade rules, protections for the industry similar to the intellectual property rules secured by Big Pharma, which have blocked the sharing of vaccine recipes throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Big Tech’s ploy has been to try to do the same thing Big Pharma did, which is to rig trade agreements to achieve what they cannot in the sunshine of public policymaking,” says Wallach. “In Big Tech’s case, that is to commandeer trade agreements to impose limits [on], if not outright ban, signatory governments from enforcing common forms of online privacy, antitrust, AI, and algorithmic nondiscrimination oversight or right-to-repair policies.”

Much of the conversation around the Trade Representative Tai’s decision to walk back U.S. support for the tech industry’s digital trade agenda has revolved around whether the move will help or hurt China. 

Wyden said in his November press release the USTR’s decision “is a win for the Chinese government’s efforts to have unlimited access to U.S. data, a win for Chinese tech giants who want to bully smaller countries into following the Chinese model of internet censorship, and a win for China’s Great Firewall, which locks out American companies and locks Chinese citizens into a repressive regime of government surveillance.”

The American Prospect has argued that Wyden has it “exactly backwards,” writing: “Tai’s decision to withdraw the Trump-era language on free flows of data makes clear that the U.S. can and will restrict data location in China by tech firms like Google.”


Wallach says the China discussion misses the point. 

“It’s honestly not really a foreign policy, geopolitics story at all,” she says. “It’s a corporate power story. Will Big Tech control your data, or will governments set data privacy and security rules? Will governments be allowed to review algorithms for racial, gender, or other forms of discrimination or prescreen for dangerous AI, or will that stuff be secret, and governments barred from any meaningful oversight? Will there be competition policies to safeguard economic liberties for competing businesses and workers, or will those competition policies arbitrarily be called illegal trade barriers? Those are all corporate power, democracy, small-business, civil rights, and consumer questions, and it hits right here at home and globally.”

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