COMMENTARY: The election of Donald Trump, the biggest own goal in U.S. history, has forced many Americans to re-evaluate the world in which they’re living. That now extends to the tech companies that are doing business with his administration.
After a week of horrific stories about the conditions under which the people who are fleeing violence — violence caused in no small part by decades of U.S. policies toward Central America — are being arrested en masse and separated from their families, even Republicans are starting to find their conscience, and that’s saying something in 2018. The policies that the Trump Administration has mandated for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency are enough to make you numb, and companies that are providing technology products and services to ICE and other government agencies under the control of this administration are now part of the problem.
Tech companies have long loved to complain — mostly in jest — about doing business with the government, a notoriously slow bureaucracy in its best years. But, as Willie Sutton (didn’t actually) say, that’s where the money is: even a small slice of the $95 billion that the United States is expected to spend on information technology in 2018 is a big win for sales teams at the largest tech companies.
One thing that has changed, however, is that some of these technology products and services are being used to foster a troubling worldview that has been credibly compared to some of the darkest moments in recorded history. Disdain for that worldview runs especially strong on the West Coast, where a sizable portion of the tech industry lives and works.
First it was Google: a few weeks ago thousands of Googlers signed a petition asking the company to stop providing its artificial intelligence services — arguably the best in the world — to the Department of Defense under Project Maven, an effort to use image recognition to target drone strikes. This week it was Microsoft, which was forced to acknowledge that it was “dismayed” by the actions that ICE has taken to separate children from their parents, but not dismayed enough to cancel a cloud contract that, accordingly to a carefully worded statement, didn’t provide Microsoft technology to the actual process of setting up detention camps for children.
As all this was going on, Amazon Web Services held its Public Sector Summit in Washington, D.C., proudly advertising its readiness for the “warfighter” amid a broader push to win the huge $10 billion JEDI cloud computing contract dangled by the Department of Defense. And Oracle, which most techies would have awarded the Most Likely To Side With The Fascists prize long before Donald Trump bankrupted his fourth casino, has been bending over backwards to win business from this administration.
Technology companies will tell you that technology is neutral; that it can be used for some of our best work and for some of our worst impulses. On the other hand, that’s exactly what the National Rifle Association would tell you about tactical weapons.
It’s not hard to understand why tech companies are conflicted about government money. Corporations are, by their nature, motivated by profit-seeking, and the government has a big pile of money and a real need to modernize its technology infrastructure. As taxpayers, we should want our government to use the best technology products available on the market, rather than wasting money on technology that doesn’t really work. And if a different administration were in power, we’re probably not having this conversation.
The truth is more complicated. Selling modern technology to the most powerful government in the world consumed by racist policies during the age of mass surveillance takes on a whole new meaning. ICE, the Pentagon, and other government agencies need boring mundane payroll and expense account applications just as much as any other organization, but under the Trump Administration, their mission does not involve making the world a better place.
While the notion that tech founders were put on this earth to make the world a better place died somewhere in Season Two of HBO’s Silicon Valley, they now have a chance to define where they stand. Most of us would prefer that our elected officials come to their senses and stand up to the executive branch, but barring a miraculous change of heart among Congresspeople representing Trump-loving districts, that’s not going to happen until 2019, at the earliest, and thousands of children could be permanently separated from their families in the interim.
It seems pretty clear that the only thing that gets Donald Trump’s attention is money. Taking money is a choice; there’s nothing that requires tech companies to do business with organizations that fail to meet their standards, and as tech companies continue to issue statements about how troubled they are by his administration’s policies, there’s one very easy way to show how they feel. Even if Trump finally gives in to pressure on this particular issue, his volatility — aided and abetted by whatever they decide to feature on Fox and Friends tomorrow morning — makes him an unstable partner.
If tech companies truly care about the opinions of their employees and their moral standing in the world more than their existential need to increase revenue, they will think twice about doing business with Donald Trump’s administration. This isn’t un-American; it’s actually keeping with the highest ideals that this country was supposedly founded upon, “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” as stated in a lesser-known clause of the First Amendment as a way to protest government action (supposedly) free from retribution.
Most of us did not ask for this situation, but here we are. Tech companies are obsessed with recruiting, dangling multimillion dollar compensation packages in front of the people they believe are key to their future.
Those people are watching.