Less than 24 hours after it was announced, President Trump’s decision to remove the US from the Paris Agreement was being denounced as “incredibly shortsighted,” as “wrong” and as “bad for the environment, bad for the economy.” Yet what was significant about such criticisms was that they came not from Trump’s opponents in Congress, but from leaders in the tech industry. They were the judgements of Jack Dorsey, Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg, and in representing at least the fourth occasion where tech CEOs have spoken out against Donald Trump’s actions, they underline how the sector — much like the press — is increasingly assuming the mantle of the unofficial opposition to the president and his administration.
That the tech industry is assuming such a role shouldn’t really be surprising (not least when Mark Zuckerberg is dropping by for dinner). Given that the industry deals primarily in innovation, in creating new products, technologies and systems that enable young entrepreneurs and startups to make fortunes out of almost nothing, it almost inevitably engenders new centers of power and influence, centers that arrive unencumbered by vested interests and outmoded, regressive values. This is why it’s well-placed to mount challenges against the status quo, why technological innovation often begets social innovation and why certain groups within Silicon Valley are actively pushing for it to become more politically involved.
In fact, it isn’t only elements within the industry — such as SiliconValley Rising — that are calling on it to do more in the “fight against Trump.” Activists and campaign groups are also urging it to become more active, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation even going so far as to take out a full-page ad in Wired pressing tech firms in December to “fight for [digital] user rights in court, in Congress, and beyond.” Added to such semi-regular demands, it’s also becoming more common for any big tech company that shies away from political action to find itself sharply criticized, as seen in how Gizmodo, for instance, called IBM “spineless” for not joining other firms in opposition to Trump’s travel ban. Meanwhile, at least one publisher is attempting to inspire further activism from the tech world by publishing a book on the subject.
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However, while the evolution of the industry into a political actor appears to be something that many are encouraging, it would be naïve for us to put too much faith in the tech world as a counterweight to every damaging move Trump might make, or as a preserver of progressive values in general. Ultimately, that’s because this world is populated and dominated by businesses which have their own commercial interests to serve, and whose political outlook is necessarily narrowed as a result.
To be fair, it’s difficult to detect such narrow interests in the apparent breadth of issues the tech industry have recently addressed. Their first foray into Trump-era activism was their collective opposition to the president’s travel ban, with more than 100 tech companies filing a legal brief against the executive order that barred nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. Around the same time, they also took aim at Trump’s decision to review the H-1B visa system, fearful that an overhaul of the system “risks serious consequences for US-based tech companies’ ability to hire elite global talent.” A few weeks later, many of the industry’s biggest firms spoke out against a directive removing federal protection for transgender students to use the toilet corresponding to their gender identities, with Apple stating, “We strongly believe that transgender students should be treated as equals. We disagree with any effort to limit or rescind their rights and protections.” And most recently, the industry was virtually united in its opposition to the US’s exit from the Paris Agreement, a move that led Elon Musk, among others, to resign from the president’s economic advisory council.
Such examples would suggest that tech companies have their eyes on a wide range of political and social issues, and that in a world seemingly lurching to the right, they’re a salutary force for good. To some extent this is true, insofar as the business practices of many of them further a handful of worthy causes. Apple, for example, reportedly consume 100 percent renewable energy at their US offices and data centers, while their global premises as a whole currently use 96 percent renewables. Much the same goes for Google, seeing as how the company expects to reach 100 percent renewable power for its global operations by the end of 2017. Undoubtedly, this would be an important milestone — one which would set a positive example for other businesses, organizations and individuals to emulate. However, it’s important to note here that what’s driving Google, Apple and other tech firms towards such a goal isn’t simply a concern for Mother Earth, but also for their own financial ventures.
Google’s interest lies largely in the fact that the company has invested $2.5 billion in over 20 international solar and wind projects to date, with a 2015 purchase of a 12.5 percent stake in Lake Turkana — Kenya and Africa’s largest wind farm — being perhaps its most notable investment so far. Likewise, Apple is also a major investor in renewables, having pumped $3 billion into solar energy facilities in 2015, and havingclaimed a 30 percent stake in the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, the China-based Goldwind, in December of the following year.
Such purchases have been mirrored by the likes of Microsoft and Facebook, both of which formed a renewables investment group in November 2015, named the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. As a whole, these companies go a long way to explaining just why the tech world has been so quick to condemn President Trump for pulling the US out of the climate accords. However, despite their idealistic branding, the world’s major tech companies shouldn’t be unconditionally trusted to fight every important political battle on behalf of those who might feel too small and powerless to do so by themselves.
This skeptical conclusion also comes out in how, for every noble cause the tech world has spoken up for, it’s ignored at least one that’s just as important. For instance, not one peep was heard from Google or Apple on the president’s executive order calling for an overhaul of the Dodd-Frank act, which aims to prevent another financial crisis and which Trump claims has reduced lending to businesses. Similarly, nothing came out of Silicon Valley regarding Trump’s order aiming to repeal Obamacare (or the actual repeal of Obamacare in the House of Representatives), with only some financially motivated complaints from a couple of startups in Austin being tech’s contribution to the conversation. And the same can be said for the orders on offshore drilling and the US-Mexico border wall, revealing how the tech industry — perhaps unsurprisingly — will, for the most part, pursue only those issues close to its financial interests and its branding.
That such a tendency exists was also evinced by how, amidst all the tumult, four big technology companies were conspicuously absent from the industry’s opposition to January’s travel ban. These were Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, all of which were reported to be after favorable rulings from the Trump administration, and all of which reportedly kept silent for fear of not having desired takeover bids approved by regulators. If nothing else, this reluctance highlights how tech firms are businesses first and political agents second, and how any increased reliance on them to fight political battles would be tantamount to letting business concerns prevail over moral and ethical values.
In other words — and contrary to the wishes of some advocates and commentators — such instances of silence reveal how tech companies can’t be trusted to be general defenders of political justice. If political opposition were increasingly delegated more to them, they would increasingly skew political discourse and debate towards their particular interests and their particular interpretations, since (like any other political actor or group) they occupy specific subjective positions that limits and biases just what they can say. This was evident in the business-focused wording of the draft letter signed by Google, Apple, Microsoft and others, which concentrated on the somewhat narrowed worry that a ban would impinge on the US’s ability “to attract the best and brightest from around the world,” while largely ignoring broader notions of liberty, equality, solidarity, justice and humanism. It’s very likely that, if left to expand their role as opponents to Trump and advocates for good causes, future interventions from the tech industry would have a similar narrowing effect on the world’s political discussions.
And not only would this result in them neglecting certain problems, but our trust in them would mean that we’d increasingly begin neglecting these same problems, even when the latter might actually be much closer to our hearts than theirs. In the end, this is why it would be mistake to pressure the tech world to fight more of our political battles on our behalf, even if its innovation of new centers of power is arguably something, on balance, worth welcoming.