While airport-stranded travelers from an apparently arbitrary list of Muslim-majority countries were being kept in handcuffs as a result of President Trump’s stunning immigration ban, the leaders of America’s most powerful tech firms stared at their feet and mumbled. Maybe this weekend’s milquetoast statements shouldn’t have come as a surprise — and there were a few Silicon Valley voices willing to castigate Trump — yet the failure of so many of the U.S. economy’s most influential players to say anything of substance or actually do anything at all to back up their words of dissent was still a great letdown.
The likes of Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook have (like any large corporation) refused to oppose head-on Trump’s widely outrageous, often-illegal agenda. But unlike most other large corporations, Silicon Valley has long draped itself in language of principle, to Make the world a better place — Facebook’s mission statement remains the effort to “make the world more open and connected,” and one can almost remember a time when Google was proudly associated with the phrase “don’t be evil.”
Immediately after Trump seized Election Day, CEOs yearning for a friendly tax repatriation policy lined up to wish him the best, tentatively supporting the new president in tones of Well, let’s just wait and see, while some offered their services to the man directly. Oracle CEO Safra Catz, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and SpaceX/Tesla CEO Elon Musk all have formal advisory positions with the Trump administration.
In a long Facebook post, Mark Zuckerberg said, “I’m concerned about the impact of the recent executive orders signed by President Trump,” while adding, “That said, I was glad to hear President Trump say he’s going to ‘work something out’ for Dreamers,” and “I’m also glad the President believes our country should continue to benefit from ‘people of great talent coming into the country.’” Zuckerberg concluded, “I hope we find the courage and compassion to bring people together and make this world a better place for everyone.” This is a statement inoffensive to the point of meaninglessness. A Facebook spokesperson later added, “We are assessing the impact on our workforce and determining how best to protect our people and their families from any adverse effects.” The fact that PayPal founder and Trump adviser Peter Thiel sits on Facebook’s board was not addressed.
This concern for immigrants insofar as they are employees but not insofar as they are humans was echoed by other companies: Microsoft said, “We share the concerns about the impact of the executive order on our employees from the listed countries, all of whom have been in the United States lawfully, and we’re actively working with them to provide legal advice and assistance.” Google did the same: “We’re concerned about the impact of this order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families, or that could create barriers to bringing great talent to the U.S. We’ll continue to make our views on these issues known to leaders in Washington and elsewhere.” Only six years ago, Google changed the design of its homepage to protest a controversial anti-piracy bill, and urged visitors to petition Congress.
In an internal memo obtained by The Verge, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos expressed his own economic anxiety: “As we’ve grown the company, we’ve worked hard to attract talented people from all over the world, and we believe this is one of the things that makes Amazon great — a diverse workforce helps us build better products for customers.”
Elon Musk issued perhaps the most polite statement of protest in history:
The blanket entry ban on citizens from certain primarily Muslim countries is not the best way to address the country’s challenges
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 29, 2017
Apple’s memo to employees, obtained by BuzzFeed, was perhaps the most galling. In it, Tim Cook essentially makes the case that a ban on Muslim immigration isn’t wrong because it’s wrong, but because “Apple would not exist without immigration, let alone thrive and innovate the way we do.”
Payments startup Square also made the amoral economic case, saying, “We are concerned about the impact the recent executive action could have on our employees and our sellers,” and adding, “The contributions of our immigrant-owned small businesses play an important part in our economy and demonstrate the best of this country’s values.”
Sam Altman, CEO of the gold standard startup accelerator Y Combinator, published a blog post titled “Time to Take a Stand,” wherein the glaring fact that Thiel works at the firm was not mentioned.
But the backlash king of Trump’s first full weekend was without a doubt Uber, the transit company that’s never shied away from doing things that make people hate it (or its CEO, Kalanick). In an email to his employees later posted on Facebook (subject line: “Standing up for what’s right”), Kalanick defended his and Uber’s relationship with Trump:
Ever since Uber’s founding we’ve had to work with governments and politicians of all political persuasions across hundreds of cities and dozens of countries. Though we share common ground with many of them, we have had areas of disagreement with each of them. In some cases we’ve had to stand and fight to make progress, other times we’ve been able to effect change from within through persuasion and argument. …
… I understand that many people internally and externally may not agree with that decision, and that’s OK. It’s the magic of living in America that people are free to disagree. But whatever your view please know that I’ve always believed in principled confrontation and just change; and have never shied away (maybe to my detriment) from fighting for what’s right.
Uber engineer Eric Butler immediately accepted Kalanick’s invitation to dissent:
Although Kalanick claimed his company, which employs many immigrants in cities across America, will compensate drivers who are affected, it’s important to keep in mind that he is a chief executive who has so far refused to recognize his employees as anything more than independent contractors, and has allowed drivers to make so little they have to sleep in parking lots. When Uber advertised its services to JFK airport in the midst of a New York taxi strike protesting the immigration ban, “#deleteuber” began trending on Twitter.
Perhaps sensing an opportunity to draw a contrast between itself and its strike-breaking competitor, Lyft issued a strongly worded statement on Sunday morning condemning the ban (emphasis theirs):
This weekend, Trump closed the country’s borders to refugees, immigrants, and even documented residents from around the world based on their country of origin. Banning people of a particular faith or creed, race or identity, sexuality or ethnicity, from entering the U.S. is antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values. We stand firmly against these actions, and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community.
As well, Lyft says it will donate $1 million to the ACLU (which already successfully sued to halt a portion of the ban) over the next four years. This is what “standing up” to something looks like, even if it’s also good press. The company declined to comment on its relationship with Thiel, who is an investor.
To their credit, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Box CEO Aaron Levie, and Dropbox CEO Drew Houston all condemned the ban. Twitter, well, tweeted about it.
Twitter is built by immigrants of all religions. We stand for and with them, always.
— Twitter (@Twitter) January 29, 2017
Airbnb’s Brian Chesky was one of the few, alongside Lyft, to propose meaningful action beyond angry (or tepid) words, vowing to provide free housing for refugees and others affected by Trump’s executive order. Prominent venture capitalists Fred Wilson and Chris Sacca both announced generous donations to the ACLU in the wake of the ban. This will help, but not enough. We know Trump respects, among little else, money and attention. For executives with so much money and influence to be willing to sit around a gleaming boardroom table and smile with Trump, to pay lip service to justice but show zero willingness to stick their necks out one iota, is a form of complicity. Their unwillingness to immediately rule out helping construct a national Muslim registry is a form of cowardice. If the likes of Apple, Microsoft, and Google — which collectively hold 23 percent of all non-financial corporate cash in the United States — mean anything they wrote this weekend, they will use their immense political and economic power, not issue statements. And yes, that might mean, for a flicker of his attention span, making Donald Trump unhappy.