Silicon Valley’s Ambivalence Toward Trump Turns to Anger

2017-01-29 11:35:09

 

Silicon Valley’s Ambivalence Toward Trump Turns to Anger

SAN FRANCISCO — On Friday morning, Silicon Valley was ambivalent about President Trump. The software programmers, marketing experts and chief executives might not have voted for him, but they were hopeful about finding common ground with the new administration.

By Saturday night, much of that optimism had yielded to anger and determination.

Mr. Trump’s executive order late on Friday temporarily blocked all refugees while also denying entry to citizens of Iran, Iraq and five other Muslim countries. The directives struck at the heart of Silicon Valley’s cherished values, its fabled history and, not least, its embrace-the-world approach to customers. Two worldviews collided: the mantra of globalization that underpins the advance of technology and the nationalistic agenda of the new administration.

In response, a significant part of the tech community went to the barricades.

Netflix’s chief executive, Reed Hastings, said Mr. Trump’s actions “are so un-American it pains us all,” adding, “It is time to link arms together to protect American values of freedom and opportunity.”

Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, made the same point. “We must stand with those who are affected,” he said.

A Google’s founder, Sergey Brin, who immigrated from the Soviet Union when he was 6, seemed to take that suggestion literally, attending an impromptu protest on Saturday evening at San Francisco International Airport. When some of the demonstrators realized that the 10th-richest man in America was with them, they asked for selfies. He good-naturedly obliged.

“I’m here because I'm a refugee,” Mr. Brin said, according to one protester.

The tech companies’ reaction was more forceful than that of other industries. Just about everyone in Silicon Valley came from somewhere else or is a son or daughter of someone who did or is married to someone who did.

That list starts with the most famous Silicon Valley citizen of all: Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder, whose biological father immigrated from Syria in 1954. Mr. Trump’s order proclaimed that “the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States” and would be suspended indefinitely.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said that his great-grandparents had come from Germany, Austria and Poland, and that the parents of his wife, Priscilla Chan, were refugees from China and Vietnam.

“Like many of you, I'm concerned about the impact of the recent executive orders signed by President Trump,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook on Friday.

Even some of those working closely with the Trump administration were critical. Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, who sits on two of Mr. Trump’s advisory committees, said the ban was “not the best way to address the country’s challenges.” Mr. Musk was born in South Africa.

Aaron Levie, the chief executive of the data storage company Box, wrote on Twitter that “on every level — moral, humanitarian, economic, logical, etc. — this ban is wrong and is completely antithetical to the principles of America.”

Over all, Mr. Levie said in an interview, “there was a pretty resounding response from the tech industry showing how unacceptable this is.”

Beyond the issue of family heritage and employment, he noted, Silicon Valley cares about immigration because its companies strive to operate everywhere in the world.

“Almost every company’s products — Google, Apple, Airbnb — has a global customer base,” Mr. Levie said. “These policy decisions have real implications to our partners, our customers, our competitors. That’s why we’re seeing this reaction.”

The Trump administration is little more than a week old, but its relationship with Silicon Valley is already complicated. The tech industry did not like Mr. Trump the presidential candidate, despite his embrace of Twitter, and he returned the favor with caustic posts on the platform. Stephen K. Bannon, his chief strategist, said in 2015 that “two-thirds or three-quarters of the C.E.O.s in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia,” an incorrect statement but one that many in Silicon Valley perceived as racist.

And yet a much promoted December meeting between the incoming administration and numerous tech chieftains was decidedly upbeat. “We’re going to be there for you,” Mr. Trump promised to a room that included the leaders of Apple, Microsoft and Amazon.

By early last week, the companies sensed trouble.

Murtadha al-Tameemi, 24, an Iraqi-born software engineer at Facebook, was told by a company lawyer on Tuesday that he needed to cut a visit to Canada short and return to the United States. The company feared that he would not be readmitted to the country because the president was expected to sign an executive order that would keep him out.

“It may be my naïveté about how politics and industries interact, but I don’t interpret the tech community’s opposition to the president as a political stance,” Mr. Tameemi said. “It seemed more like a matter of values and a matter that impacts them.”

The larger tech companies tended to be less forceful in their reactions to the executive order than the smaller ones. Google said it was “concerned.” Apple said, “It is not a policy we support.” Amazon said only that it was committed to diversity. Oracle did not respond to requests for comment.

On the other hand, IBM, whose chief executive, Virginia M. Rometty, was the first tech leader to become an adviser to Mr. Trump after the election, pointed a reporter to a statement by the Information Technology Industry Council that politely criticized the order. IBM is a member of the council.

As Saturday progressed, the industry seemed to find strength in numbers. Around 10 a.m., Mr. Chesky of Airbnb posted on Twitter vaguely that “open doors bring all of US together.”

By 6 p.m., he was advocating open protest. Early Sunday morning, he wrote a memo to employees warning that Mr. Trump’s new policy was “a direct obstacle to our mission.”

It was a long, dizzying day for an industry that is struggling to find its footing under the new president. “It feels like the air itself has changed, like when a storm comes,” said Shervin Pishevar, a founder of Sherpa Capital and Hyperloop One.

Even before the executive order, pressure had been building on companies to speak out against measures being endorsed by Mr. Trump. Some of that impetus generated by employees, and some was prompted by activists.

Engineers and product managers at several tech companies spoke to The New York Times on condition of anonymity. They have signed nondisclosure agreements at their companies and are generally not authorized to speak to the news media.

At Twitter, a number of workers felt frustrated with the disconnect between their company’s product — a platform for free speech — and the extent to which Mr. Trump has used it to attack those who question him and proclaim outright falsehoods to the American public. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, tweeted and retweeted numerous times on Saturday denouncing the travel ban.

At Facebook, employees felt a similar sense of discord. Some complained about the length of time it took Mr. Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, to speak out. Others have remained upset at the continued presence of Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist and longtime confidant of Mr. Zuckerberg, as a director on Facebook's board. Mr. Thiel was a donor to Mr. Trump and has since become an adviser. He issued a statement on Saturday evening that reaffirmed his support for the president.

Uber has one of the brightest spotlights on it. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, is a member of Mr. Trump's economic advisory team.

That has made Uber a target of protesters, some of whom shut down access to the company’s headquarters on Inauguration Day.

In an email to employees on Saturday titled “Standing up for what's right,” Mr. Kalanick stressed the importance of pushing for change by working to have a seat at the table and discussing any differences. He said he would be seeing Mr. Trump on Friday.

As protesters at Kennedy International Airport in New York multiplied on Saturday night, cabdrivers — largely immigrants — began a one-hour work stoppage at the airport as a form of protest against the executive order.

Uber did not follow suit. It suspended surge pricing, which led to accusations on Twitter that it was trying to break the strike. Uber then posted that it had not been trying to break the strike. On Sunday morning, its competitor Lyft said it was donating $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union over the next four years “to defend our Constitution.”

Sam Altman, who runs Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s most prominent start-up incubator, said things were changing so fast that it was hard to predict what was going to happen.

“After the election, a lot of people here said give Trump a chance in good faith, and after he started, a lot of people said give him a chance in good faith. Now they are looking at his policies and saying he is a risk to the republic,” Mr. Altman said. “Saturday was a good beginning, and I think there is more to come.”

Mr. Altman spoke as he was arriving at the airport in San Francisco on Saturday at 10:30 p.m. The protest was continuing, and he intended to join.

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