President-elect Donald Trump at a meeting of technology leaders in the Trump Organization conference room at Trump Tower in New York on December 14, 2016. (Albin Lohr-Jones/Pool/Sipa USA/TNS)

Tech billionaires are already wavering toward Trump, and the Silicon Valley should pin them to its political values

At face value, the hourlong, hyped-up Trump tech summit in Trump Tower last Wednesday was nothing but a photo op for a room full of billionaires.

No policies were decided, and no flare-ups between Trump and a tech titan occurred. It was cordial the whole time, and Trump was apparently “reasonable and fair the whole time.”

But the tech summit was productive — for a third party. It helped galvanize the Never Trump faction of Silicon Valley after a post-election lull. An impassioned column by tech journalist Kara Swisher shaming the attendees was shared widely, from eBay CEO Pierre Omidyar to angel investor Chris Sacca. Hundreds of tech employees and venture capitalists signed a petition vowing to refuse in building any government registries for Muslims or other groups.

It was a much-needed pushback against an industry that, at best, stayed mum about countering Trump’s most vile agenda points. It took Facebook repeated pressure from media outlets like The Intercept and Buzzfeed to say they are not building a Muslim registry. (Facebook only took a stance after a Facebook spokesperson accidentally responded to a Buzzfeed reporter calling the notion of a registry a “straw man”.) Google, Microsoft and Apple joined Facebook days after Facebook made its statement.

I get it to some extent. Silicon Valley is really just a constellation of businesses, and a business needs to keep its options open. President Trump is going to be the political reality for at least the next four years, and engaging with his administration is a practical business move.

But Silicon Valley never advertised itself as a simple business. It was something more: more innovative, more imaginative, more principled. (Remember Google’s former motto: “Don’t Be Evil”?) A principled business should have a line that it will not cross, but I can’t find anything of the sort. Something like agreeing to refuse to build a Muslim registry should be an easy line to draw, but it has felt like pulling teeth.

What I find fearing now is that some of the key values espoused across tech, like diversity or tolerance, was just a practical product of the Obama era, whose administration also shared many of those beliefs. Now with a new president, there is a new normal and a severely shrunken influence for Silicon Valley in the White House. Trump will certainly not meet Google lobbyists once a week in the West Wing like Obama did.

Will tech CEOs cave in and play ball out of desperation to retain access to power? I worry the summit was the first sign. A few tech executives lamented after the summit that the attendees should not have attended to avoid looking like a pawn to Trump.

But there may be a sign of hope. During the meeting, tech CEOs questioned Trump on immigration reform, science education and maternity leave, topics that Trump’s appointed cabinets certainly will like to shy away from. While Trump answered positively to these topics, Trump has a well-worn track record of flipping stances on political issues. It should be tech’s homework for the next four years to keep the pressure on and pin President Trump to these issues.

Trump said during the meeting that everyone in attendance can directly call his line to talk. I can only hope they are already on the phone, giving his administration a good taste of that Silicon Valley-style disruption they always pride upon.

***

On the same day as the Trump tech summit, Uber decided to roll out its self-driving car onto San Francisco streets. After it blew past a red light in SoMa, the state DMV clamped down on Uber later that day, saying they need a permit to drive self-driving cars in California. Two days later on Friday, Uber said it will ignore DMV’s order as a “an important issue of principle.”

Of all the big tech companies, Uber probably gives the least crap about looking like a good member of society. It has a longstanding reputation as a ruthless tech company, fighting company rivals, its own drivers and city councils looking to buck its quest for world domination in the taxi industry.

Even with that in mind, it was still shocking to read The Center for Investigative Reporting’s report about a Uber whistleblower who alleged Uber employees stalked ex-girlfriends and celebrities and remotely encrypted files following government raids to stymie their investigations.

The problem with Uber employees stalking rides was that this is not the first time it was reported. In 2014, Buzzfeed found an Uber executive suggesting the company dig up dirt on a critical journalist. Two years later, the stalking via “God View”—now called “Heaven View”— continues. Uber just never seems to learn or grow out of its bad boy phase.

For many of us, including myself, Uber has entered the too-big-to-cut-out phase of our digital lives. It’s too uncomfortable to navigate San Francisco without Uber at disposal. But readers should inform themselves before hitching another ride on Uber.

The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at seungylee14@gmail.com.

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