Tech giants despise politics? Hardly – they are in the thick of it and being called out | John Naughton | Opinion

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If there was one thing that united the founders of today’s tech giants in their early days it was contempt for politics, manifested as suspicion of government and a pathological aversion to regulation (not to mention paying taxes). In part, this was a product of their origins in the counterculture of the 1960s. But the aversion endured as the companies grew. One saw it, for example, in the US poet and cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. “Governments of the Industrial World,” it began, “I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

For many years, Silicon Valley companies didn’t even bother to have lobbyists in Washington. As late as 2015, Eric Schmidt, then the executive chairman of Google, was predicting that authoritarian governments would wither away in a comprehensively networked world, which made some of us wonder what exactly Dr Schmidt was smoking.

During that period, governments generally played along with this myth of their irrelevance. Presidents and prime ministers queued up for invitations to the campuses of the Silicon Valley giants. And insofar as the tech moguls paid any attention to presidential politics, it was to support the Democrats. Schmidt, for example, played a big role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency.

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel



PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has challenged Google on patriotism. Photograph: John Lamparski/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, the valley was thunderstruck by the election of Donald Trump. One of his first acts as president-elect was to summon the tech bosses to a “summit” in the White House. And most of them came, slinking in like frightened schoolboys summoned to the headmaster’s study for smoking behind the bike sheds. The only attendee who seemed genuinely relaxed to be there was PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel, but then he was the only one of them who had actively supported Trump’s campaign for the presidency.

From the beginning, Trump in the White House was bad news for the companies. Google, for example, was roiled by dissent among its staff, many if not most of whom abhorred the president. Last week, Wired published an extensive cover story chronicling three torrid years of culture wars inside a company that had resolutely projected an air of chippy, creative progress towards world domination. Over those years, the report claims, “the company would find itself in the same position over and over again: a nearly $800bn planetary force seemingly powerless against groups of employees – on the left and the right – who could hold the company hostage to its own public image”.

Four issues in particular emerged to cause trouble, Wired claims. One was the discovery that among Google geeks there was a vocal minority of rightwingers who were unimpressed by their employer’s vaunted commitment to gender and ethnic diversity. Another was the revelation that Google had apparently given favourable treatment to senior male staff who were accused of sexual harassment. (One such was given a fond farewell and $90m to ease the pain of departure.) A third was the discovery that Google had entered into a contract with the Pentagon to apply machine-learning technology to military drone footage. How, asked outraged Googlers, did this square with the company’s “don’t be evil” motto?

But the real running sore was China. It transpired that Google’s bosses were running a secret project to build a search engine that would be acceptable to Xi Jinping and co. Eventually, it was scrapped, but not before a lot of damage had been done to internal morale. And then, recently, Thiel put the boot in, via an op-ed piece in the New York Times, in which he asked why Google was starting a new AI lab in China while ending an AI project with the Pentagon. Whose side is the company on in the new cold war opening up between the US and China?

This is the kind of overtly political question – about patriotism – that Silicon Valley companies are not accustomed to being asked. The fact that it is posed by the founder of Palantir, a $20bn big-data company that was set up with the help of $2m from the CIA’s investment arm, is ironic. Especially when one remembers that Palantir has a $38m contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that implements the Trump administration’s detention, deportation and family-separation policies.

Interestingly, Thiel himself has so much faith in the US that he has become a citizen of New Zealand. “I believe in New Zealand,” he declared, “and I believe the future of New Zealand’s technology industry is still underrated. I look forward to helping it succeed long term.”

Samuel Johnson was right: patriotism is truly “the last refuge of a scoundrel”.

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