By Davey Alba for WIRED.
For Silicon Valley, speaking out against President Trump’s contentious immigration order isn’t just about politics. It’s personal. But as emotions run high, the tech industry still faces a complicated calculus. More than almost any other sector, tech could go full-tilt against Trump administration policies. But battling a president could also exact a price.
Already some prominent CEOs have come out publicly against Trump’s executive order. Some of the biggest companies, from Apple to Amazon, are considering legal action. And at least one company has learned the hard way that not speaking out has costs; after the #deleteuber hashtag campaign went viral over the weekend — fairly or not — Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down from the president’s economic advisory council.
“Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the president or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that,” Kalanick said in an email to employees obtained by the New York Times.
But standing up to a president also carries risks, especially for publicly traded companies, which face a legal obligation to put profit ahead of protest. “For companies that are acting in their self-interest, the process is sitting down and looking at this matrix, and trying to figure out how to be effective,” says Andrew McLaughlin, a venture partner at Betaworks and deputy chief technology officer of the United States under President Obama.
Companies have four main options to choose from, McLaughlin says. They could “go nuclear”—modifying their actual products so that their users take notice, as with the Stop Online Piracy Act/Protect IP Act blackout. They could lobby policymakers in Washington. They could use PR and marketing to enlist public support. And they could go to court.
Several tech giants are already looking to the law. Amazon and Expedia submitted testimony as part of their home state of Washington’s suit against the administration. Microsoft said it would be willing to weigh in, too. Separately, Apple CEO Tim Cook said the company is considering taking the administration to court. And about two dozen companies reportedly met in Silicon Valley this week to strategize on a legal challenge.
It’s not surprising companies would turn to the courts first. “You get to bring your claims in a controlled forum,” McLaughlin says. “It doesn’t interfere with your business operations.” Going the legal route is also less likely to alienate your users. After all, when it comes to someone as divisive as Trump, any position a company takes is going to offend someone. Lawsuits are just dull enough that an average user won’t spend a lot of time paying attention. “Typically, people will say, ‘Well, we’ll let the courts decide,’ rather than getting too angry at the company if they’re political opponents of a company’s point of view,” he says.
Fear of alienating users makes it less likely a company will actually change a product. But it depends on the cause. The internet blackout of January 2012 prompted by two proposed laws in Congress — SOPA and PIPA — led to a self-imposed Wikipedia blackout and Google censoring its own logo.
Whether the tech industry will go that far to protest an immigration ban is hard to predict. More battles loom, on issues ranging from taxes and trade to encryption and privacy. And that might be kind of a good thing. “Tech is not engaged in a kind of corrupt revolving door of practices that characterize a lot of heavily regulated industries, like energy, healthcare, and even the traditional telecommunications players,” McLaughlin says. “So they don’t have as much to lose as companies in those other sectors.”
Tech companies own the platforms that have become the most powerful means of organizing resistance.
Another difference: Tech companies own the platforms that have become the most powerful means of organizing resistance. They might not control oil or railroads like their mogul antecedents, but tech’s most powerful leaders do control the media by which politicians and protesters alike distribute their messages.
And that gives them the power to blow up the entire conversation. Twitter, on which Trump so heavily depends to bypass the media and deliver his message directly to the public, could simply ban the president. “Absent discrimination, a company can essentially tell anybody to ‘leave its restaurant,’” says Chris Calabrese, vice president for policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology. Twitter arguably has ample grounds to do so: As both candidate and president, Trump has already tested the platform’s boundaries of bullying and abuse. Facebook, meanwhile, could quietly tweak its algorithms to favor one kind of message appearing in users’ News Feeds over another.
Chances are, however, the industry will avoid the more aggressive choices that risk alienating users or the powers-that-be. Why bother, when more traditional means are easier? Tech’s six most valuable publicly traded companies collectively spent more than $44 million on federal lobbying last year. In Washington, money has a way of making sure you really get heard.
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