By: Matt Kapko
In less than a month since being sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump has struck an emotional chord with tech companies, generating an unparalleled unifying force of opposition. The Trump administration’s executive order banning all people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from the entering the United States has created a rift between political and business interests, and one that many technology leaders consider a threat to their very existence.
A group of 127 technology companies last week filed an official friend-of-the-court brief in the lawsuits opposing the administration’s executive order in Minnesota and Washington. Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Snap and Twitter are all on board, but there are some conspicuous absences. Enterprise leaders IBM and Oracle haven’t joined the effort and all of the major telecom and cable providers have held out thus far as well. Amazon was asked not to join the filing because it’s a witness in the original lawsuit, according to Mashable.
Immigration is core to tech innovation
“Immigrants make many of the nation’s greatest discoveries, and create some of the country’s most innovative and iconic companies,” the companies wrote in the filing, which makes an economic, moral and legal argument for how the executive order violates the Constitution. “Immigrants are among our leading entrepreneurs, politicians, artists and philanthropists. The experience and energy of people who come to our country to seek a better life for themselves and their children — to pursue the American Dream — are woven throughout the social, political and economic fabric of the nation.”
The amicus brief came after a week of protests around the country and public outcries from technology’s biggest stars including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Other members of tech’s elite responded by matching donations to the American Civil Liberties Union. Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz pledged to hire 10,000 refugees.
Technology companies have simply never taken such a public and unified stance against a U.S. government policy in the courts. In 2014, almost 150 companies sent a letter to the FCC in support of net neutrality rules. More than 20 tech leaders tried to revive efforts for immigration reform in 2013 by creating FWD.us and some technology companies issued public statements supporting Apple in its struggle with the FBI last year involving an iPhone use by a suspected terrorist in San Bernardino, Calif.
Technology leaders are no doubt hoping for better results this time around. Previous galvanizing moments for tech have largely failed. The FBI was eventually able to break that iPhone’s encryption using a third-party tool, FWD.us has mostly sputtered and net neutrality rules are in serious jeopardy under the Trump administration.
Legal filing is a potent form of protest against immigration ban
The legal brief, which was initially filed on Super Bowl Sunday and amended with more signatures the following day, is the tech industry’s “protest to banning talent from countries where untapped, highly desired, affordable expertise is blossoming,” says Brian Solis, principal analyst at Altimeter Group. “Mr. Trump’s incredibly ignorant ban on human beings who reside in different parts of the world impacts scale and expansion of innovative companies not just in Silicon Valley, but in every technology hotspot around the United States of America.”
Many of today’s largest tech firms were created by immigrants or offspring of immigrants, so immigration is a part of the DNA of many of these organizations, according to Vincent Raynauld, assistant professor in communication studies at Emerson College in Boston. “One of the reasons why the United States has been able to stay ahead of the game when it comes to technology is immigration,” he says.
“A lot of tech companies are not necessarily in agreement with Trump’s policies, but I think immigration hit them to the core because… their ability to attract a qualified and competent workforce relies heavily on immigration,” Raynauld says. “It was the perfect issue to get in the arena and try to push back against some of Trump’s policies.”
The history of many tech companies, operating dimensions of their organization and the public perception of their businesses are all key considerations to understand why companies support, oppose or remain neutral on the immigration executive order, according to Raynauld. Highly-skilled business sectors like technology are heavily dependent on immigration, but some members of the corporate world are less dependent on talent from other countries, he says.
“These leading technology companies had no choice but to voice opposition as a matter of future-proofing,” Solis says. “Talent in the U.S. is already thin and that means companies bid against one another for limited resources. The underlying move here is one that’s bigger than work. You have the world’s leading technology companies that are pushing business and society forward, in some cases, faster than some can handle. This very brief symbolizes the great American divide between those competing or trying to compete for the future and those who believe the ship toward innovation is moving too fast and they would like to get off at the next port.”
Trump and public opinion force tech companies to respond
Trump has effectively dragged many technology companies into the political arena at a time when much of their customer base is expecting tech leaders to be increasingly political, according to Raynauld. “I haven’t seen tech companies get so riled up. There’s been some rumblings in previous administrations, but it’s such a unifying response to a policy that’s been introduced by a president that’s only two-and-a-half weeks in,” he says. “The expectations are changing because of this new generation of citizens.”
Leaders in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are taking a stand against a president they don’t support and creating the first organized movement to fight him and his controversial ambitions, Solis says. “It’s an unprecedented union of influential companies acting selfishly and progressively at the same time. They stand for humanity, morals and dreams beyond borders. Innovation knows no party lines. It simply hungers for progress, change, and even disruption.”
Why enterprise companies are holding out
The holdouts among giants in the enterprise like IBM and Oracle also highlight the different pressures facing technology companies that largely serve businesses instead of consumers, according to Jan Dawson, chief analyst and founder of tech research firm Jackdaw. “their customers are big, often relatively conservative businesses themselves, rather than being individual consumers with strong views and opinions on subjects like immigration,” he says. “The big traditional enterprise companies also often don’t have the same corporate culture of fostering quirkiness, a sense of rebelliousness and disruption.” Dawson notes that smaller companies like Box are taking stand and have come out strongly against the immigration ban.
“It’s also worth noting that the perceived risks may be higher for these companies – the loss of any single consumer over a stance on immigration isn’t going to hurt any company, but the loss of business from a Fortune 50 client would be a serious blow to any big enterprise provider,” he says. “Very few people are paying attention to how the big enterprise companies are responding to all this, and so the price to be paid for remaining silent or commenting in very narrow ways relating to business rather than in moral terms is minimal, while the downside of speaking out forcefully is probably more significant.”
Although tech luminaries rarely come together on hot-button issues, Solis believes there will be many more actions taken at the federal level that will energize Silicon Valley and innovation hubs around the world to “wrestle or downright undermine” Trump and his administration’s policies. “We haven’t seen the last of egregious acts against humanity and the Constitution,” he says.