Trump’s Border Ban Pushes Tech to Take a Stand — But Will It Lead?


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Friday’s news of Trump’s executive order barring refugees and banning immigration from seven largely-Muslim nations precipitated a weekend-long crisis of conscience in many businesses — mostly but not exclusively in the tech world. As protesters thronged D.C.’s Dulles, New York’s JFK, San Francisco International and other airports across the U.S., executives and employees at a lot of companies realized that they had a new action item demanding immediate attention: Decide where you stand.

The fork in the road lay outside the bounds of normal operations, but this was not a business-as-usual moment. Many companies are framing the issue less as choosing a side in a partisan political battle than as staying true to closely held values and deeply felt identity.

(Some) Tech Joins the Resistance

It was hardly surprising that tech would be first at these particular barricades. The industry has always been built on the sweat of immigrants — people like Intel’s Andy Grove. Grove fled Hungarian repression in 1956 for a new life in America. His niece, Ann Crady Weiss, writes in NewCo Shift, “We reject the notion that we should summarily ban the next Andy Grove from the U.S. because of the country he happened to be born in.”

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took to up the keyboard on Friday afternoon with a mild but unambiguous statement of “concern” over the kind of restrictions on immigration that might have kept the family of his wife, Priscilla Chan, out of the U.S. Netflix’s Reed Hastings posted a stronger statement calling Trump’s order “un-American,” and other tech leaders chimed in as well.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin took a more traditional activist path (The Verge): he turned up at the SFO protest. “I’m here because I’m a refugee,” he said. Airbnb’s Brian Chesky posted that his company would provide “free housing to refugees and anyone else who needs it” as a result of Trump’s ban. A long list of executives and investors made pledges to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union, which raked in more than five times its annual donation tally in just two days. (Buzzfeed has an exhaustive rundown of tech leader statements and tweets.)

Tech’s response was so visceral and immediate because, as The New York Times put it, “Just about everyone in Silicon Valley came from somewhere else or is a son or daughter of someone who did or is married to someone who did.” Even if you didn’t “come from somewhere else,” you work right next to a whole lot of people who did. Might this be the issue that finally puts tech firmly in a position leading an opposition movement?

It’s About Practical Problems, Too

It may be too early to tell. But beyond the personal level, the tech industry has globalism in its blood and on its org chart. You can’t build a smartphone without a broadly connected global economy that brings rare-earth metals, chips and other components, software, and new ideas together from locations around the planet. You can’t grow a great company without access to the best minds regardless of national origin. And if you have a unique product, you’re going to be trying to sell it on every continent. Ham-handed border closings and discriminatory bans don’t just offend tech’s moral sensibilities; they muck up its operations.

Google, which had built impressive clout in Barack Obama’s Washington, had been trying to build bridges to the Trump administration. But the immigration ban knocked it back on its heels. CEO Sundar Pichai told employees Friday that more than 100 employees had been immediately affected by the ban. Apple’s Tim Cook was dining Thursday night with Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, but on Saturday he emailed Apple employees to say the ban was “not a policy we support.”

Microsoft took an increasingly vigorous position against the ban. A few big tech companies were noticeably silent, including IBM and Oracle, whose CEOs have pledged cooperation with Trump, and Palantir, whose backer Peter Thiel is Trump’s favorite tech leader.

Tesla’s Elon Musk, who serves on Trump’s business advisory council, issued a mild statement of disapproval — “not the best way to address the country’s challenges.” On Sunday he was volunteering to funnel suggestions to Trump: “Please read immigration order. Lmk specific amendments. Will seek advisory council consensus & present to President.” We’ll see whether Musk’s “work within the system” effort makes any headway.

Uber And Lyft Take Different Roads

The way the protests have played out for ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft illustrates just how consequential these choices might be for companies juggling strategic relationships, employee unrest, and customer outrage. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick serves as a Trump adviser, and when the company’s decision to drop surge-pricing at JFK while taxi drivers were staging an hour-long strike in support of ban protests, customers saw it as an attempt to break the strike, and a grassroots “#deleteuber” movement took off (Slate). “I don’t need a ride to Vichy,” one angry user tweeted.

Kalanick’s later Facebook post announcing support for drivers affected by the ban, including a $3 million legal defense fund, didn’t mollify the Uber-deleters. Meanwhile, the founders of Uber rival Lyft emailed users to say “We stand firmly against these actions” and announce a $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Uber already has a reputation for cold self-interest and sharp elbows. It’s winning the market-share war with Lyft, but crises like this one have a way of reshaping the fate of brands. By asserting its values and connecting with its users, Lyft could reset the game. But this stuff is endlessly complicated: Trump pal Peter Thiel is a Lyft investor.

Beyond Tech, Less Noise

Beyond Silicon Valley, you have to look a lot harder to find clear statements in response to Trump’s executive order. Starbucks was a notable exception: Chairman Howard Schultz posted a lengthy letter on Sunday, putting the immigration ban in the larger context of other controversies Trump has stirred, including access to healthcare, the Mexican wall, and the fate of “Dreamers.”

But so far the silence from massive industries like automobile manufacturing, finance, and retail has been deafening (Reuters). It could be that these companies simply move slowly, and we’ll hear more from them after they hold some meetings. Or it could be that they feel much less pressure from their workforces than tech companies, either because more employees approve of Trump’s policies or because fewer workers feel they have the security to protest.

Since the election, we’ve been saying that companies are going to find it nearly impossible to stay neutral in the red/blue conflict that Trump has kindled. As usual, tech is on the leading edge. Is it doing enough? The cynical view (via Sam Biddle at The Intercept) sees the moves as mostly ineffective and half-hearted. Other critics (like Anil Dash) point out that tech companies collectively shuttered their websites to protest SOPA/PIPA five years ago, and wonder why we aren’t seeing some similarly dramatic group response now.

Maybe we still will; it has only been one weekend since Trump’s order came down. And this fight is only going to get bigger. The White House is already teeing up another executive order to rewrite the rules around H-1B visas, limiting business’s freedom to bring in skilled foreign workers (Bloomberg). Silicon Valley companies depend on these visas. Stay tuned for even sharper resistance.

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