Tech giants will have to show teeth in face of Trump assault

Net Results: Industry needs to flex muscle or it will be mown down by ‘Carmageddon’ presidency

The tech sector needs to accept that Peter Thiel is not going to be its intercessor with Donald Trump. Photograph: Andrew White/The New York Times

The tech sector needs to accept that Peter Thiel is not going to be its intercessor with Donald Trump. Photograph: Andrew White/The New York Times

 

The technology industry, especially within Silicon Valley, likes to portray itself as groovily progressive.  

Take weekly work time off to volunteer! Grab those free chai and smoothie drinks from the fridge near your cubicle cluster! Celebrate diversity in the workplace by having chef-prepared falafel for lunch in the canteen!

But peel away those glossy media profile layers [employees take a twisty slide between floors!] and what you find is a lot of “business as usual”, which means business as cautious, don’t-rock-the-boat self-preservation. 

We saw this in the first days of the Trump transition, when major tech leaders, most of whom were opposed to a Trump presidency [with the notable exception of the increasingly creepy Peter Thiel], nonetheless went to quietly genuflect at Trump Tower in a meeting at which a quarter of the seats were taken up with Trump family members.

 Yes, the official photos circulated afterwards of a clearly uncomfortable tech contingent were a bit of a laugh, especially the one of Apple’s Tim Cook sitting in a row of colleagues, mouth clamped in the grim rictus of an intelligent man forced to endure a Trumpsplaining [a picture swiftly circulating on Twitter with the caption, “We are all Tim Cook”].

Mayhem

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Some then jumped on board as “special advisers” alongside Thiel [who, remember, chastened the media during the election for taking Trump “literally”] in an advisory group that now includes Tesla and SpaceX’s Elon Musk, Uber’s controversy-prone CEO Travis Kalanick, IMB CEO Ginni Rometty and Oracle co-CEO Safra Katz.

We can see how well this is all working out.

Last weekend brought with it the Muslim ban, which both immediately and in the longer term, causes utter mayhem for tech companies, which employ thousands of people who either fit the ban’s parameters or are close enough that they will undoubtedly face travel nightmares in the future. 

The executive order, at last, produced some industry cojones. The industry recognises that this crazy Trump regime kick – and another draft order aimed at tightly limiting H1B work visas for non-US citizens – will land squarely in the tech sector’s most sensitive areas: recruitment and research.

The tech sector needs skilled employees in degree areas which are in dwindling supply in the United States, and the now-banned countries produce them. Stem degrees – science, technology, engineering and maths – are popular in many of the banned and restricted countries in the order.

Wishy washy

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The initial response from the tech sector was slow, if pointed. Companies like Google and Facebook immediately began recalling employees abroad who could be barred from re-entering the US. Then, in a trickle that increased to a steady flow, companies and executives came out with statements opposing the ban. 

Some, like IBM’s and Elon Musk’s, were bland, diversity-is-important tiptoeing around a condemnation. Others, like Netflix, Google, Salesforce and Airbnb, ranged from full-on anger to strong opposition.

Meanwhile, a Thiel spokesperson came out with the wishy washy, “Peter doesn’t support a religious test, and the administration has not imposed one”. This, even as someone claiming to be directly involved with the order’s drafting – Rudy Giuliani – claimed on air that it was exactly that.

Draft order

The H1B visa scheme is an essential source of employees for US tech firms. Some 85,000 are issued annually – about a quarter of the number actually requested – and they go predominantly to tech companies.

Many Republicans and Democrats have campaigned for years for H1B expansion, not curtailment. They’ve rightly argued that the US will lose employees and entrepreneurs who, past studies show, would otherwise form companies, produce significant research and products, and bolster the economy. 

At that December tech meeting in Trump Tower, Trump indicated he might soften his campaign line on H1Bs and immigrant employees. Now, we know he isn’t, despite Thiel and other tech advisers. 

As the “Carmageddon” presidency of Donald Trump continues – who knows, from day to day, where it will veer and which individuals, groups, organisations and industries it will attempt to mow down? – the tech sector needs to accept that Peter Thiel is not going to be its intercessor.

So find a collective voice. Exert some of the upfront and behind-the-scenes lobbying and bargaining power you’ve brought to Washington in the past. 

And stop hoping foolishly that, on the long and brutal road ahead, the Trump regime will be travelling about in well-behaved Google cars rather than industry assault vehicles, aimed at you.

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