The Week in Tech: Silicon Valley Gets Even More Political

Each week, technology reporters and columnists from The New York Times review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the tech industry. Want this newsletter in your inbox? Sign up here.

Hello, readers! I’m Jack Nicas, a Times reporter covering technology in San Francisco. We’re starting a new routine for this newsletter: A different tech correspondent will deliver it each week. (Bleary-eyed from my birthday weekend in Mexico, I got picked first. Thanks, boss!) Most of us are news reporters, not opinionated columnists like Farhad Manjoo or Kevin Roose, but we’ll still do our best to provide hot takes and corny jokes.

This week it would feel inappropriate to sum up the week’s news without addressing the controversy over the Trump administration’s recently halted policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border. The story dominated the news, seeping into nearly every area of coverage — including, of course, tech.

As we’ve seen over the past two years, tech companies again threw themselves into the kind of political debate that they have long been eager to avoid. This week, my colleague Sheera Frenkel reported that more than 100 Microsoft employees signed a letter asking the company to halt business with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency separating families at the border. Executives from Apple, Google, Facebook and others also publicly criticized the policy.

The response follows similar tech industry outcries over Trump administration policies that, for the most part, don’t affect their businesses. Tech bosses have criticized President Trump’s exit from the Paris climate accord, his comments following racist marches in Charlottesville, Va., his ban on transgender people in the military, and his move to end a policy that shielded undocumented immigrants from deportation. Tech companies even filed legal motions against the Trump administration’s ban on travelers from certain countries.

It hasn’t just been Silicon Valley. Executives like Merck’s Kenneth Frazier and Under Armour’s Kevin Plank left White House councils following Mr. Trump’s Charlottesville remarks. Retailers like Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods limited gun sales and Delta Air Lines ended discounts for National Rifle Association members following the Parkland, Fla., school shooting. Airlines this week also asked the government to not use their planes to transport immigrant children separated from their parents.

So why are businesses getting political? For one, we live in a highly politicized time with a deeply polarizing president, and platforms like Twitter have made it easier for brands to weigh in directly.

In the case of tech executives, their increased activism might also in part reflect their growing power and importance. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook have such large global businesses that they have become almost stateless entities themselves.

But I’m betting much of their newfound political activism has a bit clearer impetus: Employee pressure. The Silicon Valley ranks tend to be outspoken and — surprise! — they generally don’t like President Trump. Google executives consoled their employees after Mr. Trump’s election, and weeks later, Google staff held protests against his travel ban. Google employees more fully discovered their power earlier this month when they successfully pressured their bosses to not renew a Pentagon contract.

What does this all mean for bottom lines? Losing that Pentagon business wasn’t welcome news for Google executives trying to catch rivals Amazon and Microsoft in the cloud-computing sector. And the consensus has long been that ticking off half the country would be bad for sales. (The basketball star Michael Jordan allegedly once said, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”)

That may not be such an issue for Silicon Valley, however. Their products are so central to daily life that tech boycotts aren’t so effective. Try giving up Google or Amazon.

In other news:

■ Instagram is going after YouTube with a new app called IGTV that allows up to hourlong videos that are shot vertically, so they fill your whole phone screen. YouTube is the juggernaut in online video, surpassing one billion hours watched a day in late 2016, and has become increasingly important to its parent company Google’s bottom line. Facebook’s efforts to create a video competitor have been lackluster, so it’s hoping its Instagram unit can have better luck.

■ Shameless plug: My colleague Paul Mozur and I spent weeks reporting across China, Washington and Silicon Valley to detail Apple’s efforts to play diplomat between the United States and China in the hopes that it doesn’t get caught in a trade war.

■ In The New York Times Magazine this week, my colleague John Herrman has an incisive look at how the eBay model gave rise to the internet’s modern problems. How could that be? Give it a read.

■ Hoo boy. This piece in Bloomberg by Ellen Huet about how an “orgasmic meditation” start-up is more like a cult is a doozy.

■ And The Wall Street Journal had a great analysis of Russian trolls’ tweets — including that Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, retweeted one troll 17 times.

Jack Nicas is a technology correspondent for The Times. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacknicas.




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