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Is Silicon Valley resisting Trump? (It’s complicated) (Includes first-hand account)

To be sure, there are several contentious issues – immigration and clean energy especially – dividing Silicon Valley and the Trump administration.

Many tech companies, for instance, recruit programmers and computer engineers from other countries. These employees require coveted H-1B visas to work in the U.S. But concern over making sure that a programmer from Bangalore can come to the U.S. and work in Cupertino (Apple’s HQ), for instance, does not necessarily extend to immigrants picking lettuce in fields just a few miles away. Will these companies mount a vigorous protest to deportations of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. if they can obtain the visas they need to make new hires from abroad?

Clean energy is another polarizing issue. Silicon Valley is for it, the administration not so much. Again, tech companies have responded warily to Trump’s environmental policies. At no point, for instance, did Tesla’s founder and CEO Elon Musk protest the administration’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations even though he was a scientific advisor to the president. He quit only when Trump announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. Presumably, he isn’t alone in the tech sector to react so ambivalently.

But can we really expect Apple, Alphabet (parent company of Google), Facebook and Amazon to seriously confront Washington? Idealism certainly isn’t motivating them, says Sam Biddle, a reporter for the news website The Intercept.

Biddle was speaking recently at a panel discussion held as part of Brooklyn’s annual Northside Festival, a kind of East Coast ‘South by Southwest’ featuring talks about technology and performances of cutting edge music.

Donald Trump made his fortune by building a network of hotels  office towers and luxury apartment bu...

Donald Trump made his fortune by building a network of hotels, office towers and luxury apartment buildings
Saul Loeb, AFP/File

Wall Street CEOs may be widely derided for their fat bonuses and their ‘greed is good’ ethos, but Kara Swisher believes that their counterparts in Silicon Valley aren’t much better. Swisher is the outspoken executive editor of Recode, a tech news website. “Tech CEOs get very offended if you suggest they’re not acting in people’s best interests,” she says. “They tell you how good they are and then they get in their private planes and fly away.”

Or as Anil Dash, CEO of Fog Creek Software, puts it: “They want credit for the good stuff, but don’t want to take responsibility for the bad stuff.”

The prevailing tech mentality is exemplified by Facebook, says Meetup’s CEO Scott Heiferman. He singles out Facebook for facilitating the spread of ‘fake news’ in the runup to 2016 U.S. elections, “Facebook likes to think they can understand the complexity of technology but they have blinders on. They rarely have the answer when it comes to understanding the complexity of society.” Recode’s Swisher agrees: “Half of Facebook users get their news from the site. It’s not benign.” The social media behemoth is often slow to remove pernicious and incendiary content, she says. On the other hand, the Alt-right and GOP have proven very effective at using tools like Facebook in sharp contrast to unions and progressives. Twitter has also given advocates of every political stripe a powerful mouthpiece, but one user stands out above all others. “Trump is the greatest troll in the world,” Swisher says, “He uses Twitter beautifully.”

Far from turning into hotbeds of resistance, Swisher believes, tech companies will ultimately cave if they get what they want. “They’re going to negotiate with Trump – no one’s going to complain about him if they receive tax breaks for repatriated money and regulations are scaled back.”

While it’s still unclear whether the tech industry is prepared to negotiate with the Trump administration – tensions remain high – they’re certainly willing to sit down with his representatives. On June 19th, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and close adviser, played host at the White House to tech leaders from Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Oracle, Cisco, Alphabet and Amazon among others (Facebook and Musk were prominent no shows) to discuss how to improve the government’s obsolete IT systems. (In some cases, a White House official said, the system is 20 years out of date.) Of course, the companies were hoping to win contracts from the government to upgrade the system. They could also benefit from a proposed tax repatriation plan if it’s approved by Congress. (Apple, for instance, keeps billions of dollars abroad.) “But that explanation isn’t entirely satisfying,” says Bloomberg News, pointing out that “many of the companies that would also benefit from Trump’s tax plans” including Alphabet, Apple and Microsoft, which so far have opposed many initiatives of the Trump administration like the travel ban against visitors and immigrants from several Muslim countries.

Creative destruction sounds nice in principle – and failure is celebrated in Silicon Valley – but what happens when it’s the jobs of ordinary people that are being destroyed? “Artificial Intelligence and self-driving cars are job killers,” Swisher argues. “They (tech companies) dismiss the displaced workers the way they think of blacksmiths thrown out of work by the automobile. The pain part they don’t want to be part of.” Throwing millions of people out of work – most of them likely to be white men – will only fuel more political turmoil and populism. A new iPhone isn’t going to help someone who can’t put food on the table or pay the mortgage. The indifference of the tech industry to the consequences of their actions may come back to haunt them.

In December, a month before Trump took office, The Intercept’s Biddle surveyed several tech companies including Facebook, IBM and Lockheed Martin, asking them whether they’d sign a pledge not to provide data to build a registry of Muslims in the U.S. It was a hypothetical question, but in light of Trump’s many anti-Muslim statements during the campaign, it was a question that needed to be taken seriously. (There’s historical precedent for such a registry; IBM helped Nazi Germany collect census data about Jews and other minorities which were then used to identify and round them up for deportation.)

Dash, a former White House advisor on digital policy, points out that there’s a larger story here. “Workers at many of these companies pledged to leave their employers if their companies contributed to such a registry.” The potential defection of high-skilled workers has the capacity to stiffen spines in the C-suites. Many employees in the tech sector have already expressed willingness to walk if their bosses fail to uphold values they believe in like clean energy, immigration reform and transgender rights.

And then there’s a matter of money – or rather the possibility of losing it. “Tech CEOs aren’t going to respond until they lose something,” Dash says, “if, for instance, SpaceX loses a NASA contract.” SpaceX, a pioneer in space transport, is owned by Elon Musk.

Meetup’s Heiferman believes that employees in Silicon Valley would make a much more potent political – and economic – force if they unionized. Yes, he admits, many of them make good money, but unions are about more than money. (They can get out the vote for candidates they support in elections, for instance.) He argues that progressives could make better use of Facebook and other social media to get their message out and rally supporters who might otherwise stay home on election day.

Swisher also has several recommendations: Give money to organizations attacked by Trump and/or threatened with a loss of federal funding like Planned Parenthood; support media companies that can have an impact; support time for workers to protest. And if you’re dissatisfied with the way things are, run for office. “Stick your necks out on issues that are crucial.”

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