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Trump’s first weeks in office have politicized the tech industry

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Earlier this week more than 100 companies — including Apple, Facebook and Google — filed an amicus brief challenging the constitutionality of President Trump’s January 27 immigration action, Executive Order 13769.

The move comes after days of heated rhetoric and protests in Silicon Valley over the new administration’s statements and policies. Contrary to any business-as-usual atmosphere, President Trump has thrown the tech industry into turmoil.

Confusion, friction, obstruction

Though some upsides to Trump’s IT policy may emerge, a lack of internal structure in the White House is adding to the uncertainty that began on the campaign trail. The president’s tech agenda is largely a blank slate. During the election, candidate Trump issued no major tech policy briefs, gave no major IT speeches and generally only talked about tech to hammer Apple or Amazon on jobs.

His transition team and White House communications office did not respond to multiple requests to discuss tech policy priorities or appointments for this story. The White House Office of Science and Technology’s website is down and only one (known) White House staff tech adviser — Trump family friend Reed Cordish — has been named.

During the election, candidate Trump issued no major tech policy briefs, gave no major IT speeches and generally only talked about tech to hammer Apple or Amazon on jobs.

The administration’s first tech-related policy initiative, an executive order on cybersecurity, first faced big questions, then was scrapped.

After an acrimonious campaign relationship with the technology sector, the play-nice period fostered by Trump’s December 15 Tech CEO Summit has definitely waned.

Discord between the White House and Silicon Valley is already factoring on several fronts. At the CEO level, industry leaders are verbally, legally and organizationally clashing with Trump’s policies.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned from Trump’s business advisory board over the travel ban. Before this week’s en masse industry challenge, Microsoft and Amazon had already filed a federal lawsuit against the executive order. Google announced a $4 million fund to help those affected by Trump’s immigration orders.

And in anticipation of administration restrictions on the H-1B visa program, some tech co-founders established an industry contingency plan — True North — to relocate their foreign workers to Canada.

There’s also the increasing possibility of frequent protests and flat-out obstruction by tech leaders and workers against Trump administration policies, some of which may already be in play.

There is a lack of clarity regarding Trump’s technology policies. Most campaigns lay out specifics on a whole range of issues. The fact that he didn’t concerned me.
— Steve Case, CEO of Revolution LLC

Last week, Google employees worldwide staged walkouts over the travel ban. IT workers — some affiliated with a new Tech Solidarity group — also recently protested in front of Palantir on fears the Peter Thiel co-founded company could assist a Muslim registry.

And on the extreme end, the Calexit movement for California secession — elevated by venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar — cleared administrative hurdles to become a ballot initiative in 2019.

In the meantime, pressure on industry executives to weigh in against the travel ban is mounting. Elon Musk — who was also named to Trump’s business advisory board with Uber’s Kalanick — is facing calls to step down. Though not part of the original grouping, his companies Tesla and SpaceX joined the list of firms backing the amicus brief lawsuit against Executive Order 13769.

Cabinet, management style, potential upsides

For all the current distress around Trump and tech, there could be some policy upsides down the road.

Steve Case, the internet pioneer and co-founder of the Washington-based tech investment firm Revolution LLC, saw a mixed bag in the wake of the inauguration. “There is a lack of clarity regarding Trump’s technology policies. Most campaigns lay out specifics on a whole range of issues. The fact that he didn’t concerned me,” he said. “But now that he won, that lack of clarity could create greater opportunity to influence the policies.”

These early opinions from Case, made in the first days after the election, have shifted with the President’s performance in his first weeks in office.

“Now that we are seeing President Trump’s initial policies, I certainly have concerns. Like many in the tech community, I am strongly against the executive order on immigration,” Case wrote in an email.

Outside of the policy realm, Case also thinks Trump’s election win — which was driven by a surge in rural and rust-belt support — could “serve as a wake-up call” for Silicon Valley to widen its perspective, “be more sensitive to the broader societal impact of technology,” and “lead to greater investment” in more regions of the country.

Steve Case, chief executive officer of Revolution LLC and co-founder of America Online Inc., gestures as he speaks at the annual Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. The conference brings together hundreds of chief executive officers, senior government officials and leading figures in the global capital markets for discussions on social, political and economic challenges. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Steve Case, chief executive officer of Revolution LLC and co-founder of America Online Inc. Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

While it’s hard to determine the new administration’s tech agenda, Consumer Technology Association CEO Gary Shapiro  believes industry benefits could come through Trump’s other policy priorities.

“If there’s an infrastructure bill, there’s a possibility to include broadband, to build smart highways with fiber underneath. These are bi-partisan things and I don’t think Trump is going to disagree on them,” he said.

Shapiro also sees tech opportunities in Trump’s trade policies: “Redoing NAFTA could be a good thing. It was negotiated in 1993, it hasn’t dealt with intellectual property, it hasn’t dealt with the internet, it hasn’t dealt with data flows.”

Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, points to possible industry benefits from Trump’s tax repatriation plan. “We’d like to see that money trapped overseas come back…to strengthen the American economy and our companies,” he said.

Guardino also believes tech policy under a Trump administration could be positive if the president lets his appointees lead. Beyond the White House, there are multiple executive agencies and commissions — from the FAA and FCC to The Department of Labor — that regulate the tech industry.

“It will be interesting to see his style with his cabinet members. Will he follow more of a CEO ‘I hired you because you’re smart, go’ model, offering independence?” Guardino said. “If that’s the case, for example, with someone as competent and capable as Transportation Secretary Chao — whose agency will co-regulate drone delivery and self-driving cars — then we have great hopes. If his style is more micromanagement, then it will be more challenging.”

Featured Image: Drew Angerer/Getty Images