Silicon Valley is struggling with how to interact with the Trump administration.
The past few weeks have seen industry-wide letters and court filings over the Trump administration’s executive order travel ban.
But meanwhile, there’s a larger debate on social media and among industry insiders over how to influence federal policy with a new administration. Should it try to fight from the inside with lobbyists and its industry representatives? Fight from the outside? Create technology to undermine specific policies? Or, all of the above?
These questions are roiling an industry that largely supported President Donald Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign. They come at a time when political engagement is a relatively new corporate activity for many tech companies.
For its part, the Trump administration reached out to the tech industry prior to the president taking office. In December, leaders from Apple, Facebook, Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon, among others, gathered at Trump Plaza in New York to meet with the president-elect. Before the start of the meeting, Trump complimented those gathered, “There’s no one like you in the world.”
Three weeks after Trump was sworn in, how tech leaders are handling the new administration is under close scrutiny. Tech employees have planned job walkouts and brought up their frustrations in internal forums and at company-wide meetings.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk appears to be attempting a multi-pronged approach. Tesla and Musk’s SpaceX joined more than 100 firms in filing an amicus (friend of the court) brief in support of the state of Washington’s case against the Trump administration over the travel ban.
Yet Musk also defended his decision to remain on a Trump business advisory committee after Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, under pressure from customers and employees, quit.
“Activists should be pushing for more moderates to advise President, not fewer,” Musk said in a tweet. “How could having only extremists advise him possibly be good?”
In a reference to Musk’s plan to help humans reach Mars, Maciej Ceglowski, an entrepreneur, who has organized tech worker events against the travel ban, tweeted, “For what shall it profit a man if he gains Mars, and lose Earth?”
Meanwhile, Facebook signed on to the amicus brief but has resisted calls to boot Peter Thiel, a Trump advisor, from its board. Thiel has defended the Trump administration’s travel ban, issuing a statement last week that Thiel “doesn’t support a religious test, and the administration has not imposed one.”
Last week, employees at the social networking giant held their own private protest about the travel ban, reported The New York Times.
“You know this administration is going to have broad ability to take action on things we care about – jobs, our ability to hire, our ability to grow, everything,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said last week at an event focused on women in business. “So a dialogue there is important.”
More Involvement in Politics
Over the past five years, Silicon Valley has upped its spending on electoral politics and policy issues. Since 2012, the Internet industry, with firms such as Alphabet, Google’s parent firm, and Amazon, has nearly doubled its lobbying spending to $58 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But it isn’t in the top 20 of industry sectors. The pharmaceutical and health product sector alone spent $244 million in 2016.
But many young firms only know life under President Barack Obama who had a mostly warm, but at times contentious, relationship with tech leaders.
“The difficulty is each issue needs to be looked at as an independent piece, in a vacuum separated from other issues,” said Michael Beckerman, CEO of the Internet Association, a trade association representing global Internet firms. “When there’s an opportunity, we will work with President Trump. We need to be praising the administration when it does the right thing. When we disagree, we should be vocal and engage too. Remember, this is how we engaged with President Obama. We were vocal both when we agreed and disagreed.”
But for younger firms, the stakes are too big when it comes to the travel ban to take a moderated approach, said Evan Engstrom, chief executive of Engine, a tech startup advocacy group, and one of the firms that signed the amicus brief.
“On this issue, the administration has staked a clear position they aren’t backing away from. That is antithetical to the tech community,” he said. “To be conciliatory and not engage is not going to go anywhere.”