A political crisis is not an A/B test
Here are some scenarios tech CEOs and employees are likely to encounter over the next four years:
(1) A foreign government is suspected of attacking a network or a site that opposes President Trump — a site that is a partner of yours. “It could be anyone,” the White House says, and forbids companies from investigating on the grounds that they are imperiling national security. Do you ignore the attack, or the President?
(2) The federal government puts up for bid a contract — a nice big lucrative contract — to develop a registry for Muslims. And another one to build the tech for a border wall. Do you take the money, or do you take a stand?
(3) A whistleblower leaks a document that reveals an act of corruption inside the government. Or perhaps leaks Trump’s taxes. The White House demands that the platform or service hosting the documents remove them, and tells the media outlets covering the story to drop it. There are threats to revoke broadcast licenses and mysterious denial-of-service attacks on sites that publish the information (see #1 above). Do you heed the White House, or follow Constitutional law?
(4) Video footage showing Trump supporters attacking protesters turns up on social media. The government not only orders that it be taken down but demands to know the identity of the user who posted it. Do you stand up to bullies, or do you silence victims?
Every one of these scenarios will demand that tech companies and their leaders choose between enabling an overreaching authoritarian government, or resisting it — at the risk of shareholder ire, legal retribution, and intimidation by presidential tweet. When these forks in the road ahead come into view, there will be no safe path down the center.
Across the U.S., forward-looking mayors have been telling their citizens, in advance, how they intend to respond to a Trump-ordered crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Tech CEOs should do the same. Their users have a right to know where they stand at a moment when so many assumptions about civility, privacy, and democracy are collapsing.
This week President-elect Trump has invited a cross-section of the tech business’s leadership to a Wednesday gathering. As Kara Swisher reports in Recode, the attendees are expected to include Apple’s Tim Cook, Alphabet/Google’s Larry Page, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, and other CEOs. Many others seem to have chosen to stay away.
Unlike the refugees, the Dreamers, the foreclosed-upon, and the laid-off, the people Trump has summoned to his meeting have enormous power and resources. This would be a good time for them to practice the transparency that so many in the tech world have espoused for so long. (If Trump made them sign an NDA, rip it up.) For companies that aren’t attending Trump’s summit, tell us why. For those that are, deliver a rebuke to the president-elect’s face. Maybe he’ll listen to other billionaires. Lean in, Sheryl! Don’t be evil, Larry!
The list of objections is endless; the CEOs could divvy them up and take turns. There’s Trump’s hostility to the immigrants who have built the industry. His rejection of the science around climate change. His abuse of the digital networks, originally built to share knowledge, in order to spread lies. His bullying of critics and dissenters and his cozying to foreign dictators who do the same. His allies’ plans to shred the social safety nets that keep people alive and fed.
Sure, Trump’s hate-filled, fact-rejecting, strong-arming, self-dealing, vote-suppressing world is “disruptive.” Just like tech, he’s got a change-the-world agenda. But the world it envisions is a terrifying negative of the one Silicon Valley has dreamed of for so long.
We know that there are a great many leaders, executives, innovators, and investors in the tech industry who worked hard to defeat Trump. We know which side they’re on. We also know there was a smaller group of prominent people in the field who supported Trump. We know which side Peter Thiel is on. We know which side Palmer Luckey is on.
But which side is Facebook on? Which side is Google on? Which side is Apple or Amazon on?
These are not easy questions for companies to handle. By historical tradition, commercial self-interest, and sometimes legal necessity, American corporations have typically professed a non-partisan, neutral stance. Big companies sometimes help organize donations and set up PACs to funnel cash to favored candidates, but they also often hedge their bets and give to both sides.
This worked OK as long as American politics stayed on the rails. But we are entering a presidency that, like none in our lifetimes (with the possible exception of Richard Nixon’s), threatens to undermine democratic norms, constitutional principles, human and civil rights, international stability, and the long-term fate of the planet.
Most of the engineers and entrepreneurs who built the personal computer, the internet, and the smartphone have believed that their inventions and ideas are changing the world for the better. You may share this belief or scoff at it, but either way, it is real, and it has shaped the industry and its institutions.
Now they will be tested. As the Trump era unfolds they will confront far tougher ethical dilemmas and moral choices than they have previously faced. How far will they cooperate with a possibly corrupt government? Can a mission to change the world survive the crossfire of partisan trench warfare? What does it take for a businessperson or a software developer to say, “This is where we draw the line”?
Today we can’t know the future of the Trump government. It could fall apart quickly in a heap of scandal and incompetence. It could win some and lose some in pursuit of its policies. Or it could use a terrorist attack or international crisis to suspend laws and claim emergency powers.
In any of these futures, customs and institutions that took decades or centuries to evolve — the very social and political structures that enabled the tech industry to emerge and thrive — could get trashed in an instant. And in each of these futures, the companies that built and shape our digital lives face a choice that they doubtless would prefer to avoid: work with Trump and his gang or against them. There’s no safe middle ground, no room for equivocation. Trump opponents will insist that they protect privacy, police hoaxes and frauds, and restrain bullying mobs. Trump supporters will throng them with abuse and threats if they do any of these things.
In a national crisis, platforms must not stay neutral. The force of the moment and the starkness of the alternatives precludes that easy out.
People of tech, now is the time to choose. The sidelines have vanished. Neutrality is not an option. You face a question not that different from the one Steve Jobs posed to a CEO long ago, when he asked, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to change the world?”
Today the question is: Do you want to sell racism, sexism, oil, climate disaster, surveillance, fear, and hate? Or do you want to help save an endangered world? This is for real. This is now. There are no pivots or reboots. Which side are you on?