Tech companies can no longer avoid politics—and the fallout could be ugly

Tech companies have been famously averse to taking political stands. That’s not going to work any more.

Trump’s executive orders pull tech companies into politics
Jetta Disco/DHS

Over the past 30 years, much of the tech industry worked diligently to carefully cultivate an image of being above politics. 

Sure, many of its leaders and workers trended liberal—or libertarian. But the companies themselves typically saw themselves as apolitical. The tech industry prided itself on succeeding via innovation and disruption, the narrative went, not lobbying and legislation. 

Whether that image was entirely justified, as the industry grew into an engine of national GDP growth, that aversion to politics has started to wane. Over the past few years, more and more companies and industry associations have launched major inside-the-beltway efforts, spending big bucks to influence legislation and gain more favorable treatment on issues such as regulation, trade, Net Neutrality and H1-B visas.

Disrupting the equation 

But President Trump appears to have dramatically altered this equation. The tech industry’s growing reaction to the administration’s weekend crackdown on immigration, refugees and all border entry from seven mostly Muslim nations has brought the issues to a head, but President Trump’s rise has been prompting companies to take sides over a wide variety of increasingly contentious issues.  

+ Also on Network World: Tech leaders decry Trump’s Muslim ban +

Trump’s pre-inauguration tech summit made the issue clear. Many of the tech leaders in attendance seemed deeply uncomfortable in the political spotlight. But their very presence indicated that they didn’t feel they could decline an invitation to the event. 

And now that the new administration has assumed power, more and more companies find themselves pulled in multiple directions, facing pressure to take sides even as they struggle not to alienate government officials, customers around the world and their own multinational workforces.

Forcing companies to choose sides 

Some companies still seem to be trying to be trying to work both sides. Tesla/SpaceX’s Elon Musk has been named to Trump’s Manufacturing Jobs Initiative, but he has come out against the ban. Similarly, Apple CEO Tim Cook was in Washington last week, dining with members of the Trump family and meeting with top GOP officials. But he also made clear his increasing opposition to the executive order on immigration clear in a note to Apple employees

The leaders of Google, Microsoft and many other companies made similar statements against the executive order, suggesting that the biggest issue for most tech companies is the immediate effects on their workforces. Google’s Sergey Brin even posed for selfies at a demonstration at San Francisco International Airport. 

+ What do you think: Share your comments about the tech industry's involvement in politics +

But the bigger issue, no doubt to the industry’s great dismay, is that this situation threatens to turn technology decisions into political ones. 

Ridesharing companies present perhaps the starkest example so far: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has been linked to Trump, and perceptions of the company’s lukewarm response to the travel ban has sparked a #DeleteUber movement. (While this statement from Kalanick that came out after the hashtag began trending doesn’t specifically vow to fight the order, it does promise that Uber it will create a $3 million legaldefense fund for affected drivers.) Uber competitor Lyft, meanwhile, has pledged a $1 million donation to the ACLU to fight the executive order. 

Politics could create a poorer world 

If the current geopolitical climate leads to a world of where users feel the need to choose their tech providers according to whether they agree with the companies’ political positions, everyone stands to lose. Companies will make less money, customers will get poorer service, and innovation will slow if the tech world becomes fractured for reasons that have little to do with technology.

I hope that doesn’t happen, but it suddenly seems like a very real possibility.

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