Move Cautiously and Break Nothing

The tech industry wants to stand up to Trump and sit down with him. Will Silicon Valley ever truly join the resistance?

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Larry Page, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Mike Pence, and Donald Trump at a summit of technology executives at in New York on Dec. 14, 2016.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced that the government would no longer “accept or allow” transgender people in the U.S. military, and executives from across the technology industry were quick to denounce the move.

“Everyone should be able to serve their country – no matter who they are,” wrote Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, had a short, powerful tweet:

Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, as well as Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, who is gay, also offered statements in solidarity with the transgender community.

Along with the aftermath of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the moment signaled one of the few industry-wide outcries we’ve seen from Silicon Valley against the policies of the Trump administration. While the sector’s relationship with the executive branch has frayed in the months since it took a wait-and-see stance regarding the incoming president and met with him in Trump Tower, it has largely kept its seat at the table. Just this week, Trump (dubiously) boasted that Cook had committed to him to build three Apple plants in the United States.

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Making statements on social media is important, especially coming from one of the largest forces in contemporary American life. But six months into the Trump era, the largely liberal tech sector has been hesitant to outright embrace the resistance against the president—even if, with every bigoted and corrosive policy move his White House attempts, that seems like it would be inevitable.

How far, then, will be too far for Silicon Valley? When will the president say or do something so abhorrent that the leaders of some of the most profitable companies in the world feel they must truly stand up to his presidency?

Right now, Silicon Valley executives have both lightly criticized Trump and found plenty of occasions to work with him. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (whose businesses Trump has attacked on Twitter) and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella both attended a recent “White House Tech Week” gathering, though reps from Twitter and Facebook did not. Elon Musk—the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX—was, until the Paris pullout, an adviser to Trump; he also recently touted “verbal govt approval” for a Hyperloop project, and his companies are helped by government largesse as contractors and as beneficiaries of tax subsidies. Ginni Rometti, who leads IBM, is still on one of Trump’s business councils.

Both standing up to and sitting down with Trump makes sense for these companies, of course. No one wants to irreversibly anger the president of the United States—who after all, can enact policies cutting off tech companies’ pipeline to high-skilled workers abroad or could pressure the Federal Trade Commission to come down hard on antitrust matters. Mark Zuckerberg’s first job is to make money. Picket sign–wielders will always come second.

And besides, Silicon Valley leadership has a good track record when it comes to supporting its LGBTQ employees and fighting for equal rights for transgender people across the country. When North Carolina passed a controversial state law last year targeting transgender people by requiring anyone in schools and public buildings to only use the bathroom of the gender that corresponds with their birth certificate, PayPal pulled out of its plans to open a $3.6 million operations center in the state. When Texas passed a similar law forcing transgender children to use the bathroom that corresponds to their “biological sex” in May, executives across Silicon Valley—including Zuckerberg, Marc Benioff of Salesforce, Brad Smith of Microsoft, and Rometti—all signed on to a letter urging Texas to repeal the discriminatory ordinance.

Elsewhere the industry has been more hesitant. When it came to supporting the ongoing movement against the disproportionate police killings of black people in America, Silicon Valley CEOs were far slower to declare that black lives matter.

Dorsey was ultimately one of the first supporters of the racial-justice movement among large Silicon Valley tech companies. Zuckerberg didn’t get to penning his Facebook post in support of the Black Lives Matter movement until it had been unfolding in the streets for more than a year, and it was an internal memo in response to racist incidents at his own company.

One reason these executives might be faster to respond to LGBTQ discrimination is that it’s a much easier problem for their companies to address. Anyone who is already working at these firms likely feels completely welcome no matter their sexual orientation. But when it comes to defending the rights of people who don’t work in large numbers at their companies—like, say, black people—that seems to have been a bit harder for Silicon Valley to jump on. That might be in part because doing so would make Silicon Valley companies look hypocritical. For example, Facebook’s staff is only 2 percent black, as is Google’s.

In many ways, Silicon Valley’s enthusiasm for progressive causes tends to align with its own interests. The industry didn’t waste a second when Trump signed the discriminatory travel ban that would prevent chunks of its large highly skilled immigrant workforce from entering and exiting the country. That was a good thing, of course. Many Silicon Valley executives are immigrants themselves, like Google founder Sergey Brin and Microsoft’s Nadella.

But if Silicon Valley is truly going to stand up to Trump—and stand for equal rights and against racism, sexism, religious discrimination, and policies that target and bar transgender people from serving in the U.S. armed forces—then these executives are going to have to do more than tweet and post on Facebook. When we have a president who uses their platforms to threaten the very rule of law, it’s past time for them to act.

They’ll have to make statements even when their own companies can do much better. They should probably stop attending Trump’s dog-and-pony–show summits no matter how much they’d rather he not lash out against their companies—or sign a tax-reform bill that slashes their corporate rates. As highly compensated citizens, too, they should do even more to support the causes that seek to hold the Trump administration’s ugliest ambitions at bay.

What they really need to do is do better. The richest companies in the world are American technology companies. If the people who run them were truly dedicated to making the world a better place, that means helping care for the republic as it stands vulnerable. Help the self-styled resistance, no matter whom it alienates. Work harder on diversity.

And don’t hesitate, even for a second, to speak up when someone in power is abusing it.