What Trump means for tech

  • 10 November 2016
  • From the section Technology
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Donald Trump Image copyright Getty Images

Now the shock is beginning to subside, attention is moving to how Donald Trump's policies will play out over his four, possibly eight-year stint as president.

Barack Obama's policies on technology were considered pro-innovation, with a view to using technology expertise to improve government systems and services.

Aside from a disastrous and expensive roll-out of healthcare.gov, those efforts appear to have been well-received.

With Mr Trump, the future leaves many uncertainties. While we can draw a lot from what he has said in the past, more difficult is separating freewheeling campaigning Trump from measured, lawmaking Trump.

Much of the detail below comes from research carried out by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a US-based non-profit group.

It pulled together a report on what Mr Trump has said and pledged when it comes to technology. When lacking in specifics, the report authors drew from attitudes in other areas in an attempt to predict what may happen. You can read the report for yourself here.

Privacy and encryption

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Apple boss Tim Cook may find himself at odds with Mr Trump's views on security

The issue:

In the wake of the shootings in San Bernardino, the FBI called on Apple to weaken the encryption on its iPhone in order to assist the investigation into the shooters. The company refused, saying the personal privacy of its users should take precedent. That stance was backed by the majority of the tech community, but not by Mr Trump. User privacy when using technology is a battleground that will continually rear its head during Mr Trump's term. Today many people are concerned about his views on the surveillance state.

In his own words:

"Boycott Apple until such time as they give that information." (Campaign rally, February 2016)

"I would come down so hard on [Apple chief executive Tim Cook] his head would be spinning all of the way back to Silicon Valley." (Bloomberg interview, February 2016)

The call to boycott Apple over the encryption row seemed very much in the heat of the moment. Indeed, Mr Trump said "I just thought of that" during the rally. It wasn't a boycott that was taken seriously - even tweets on Mr Trump's Twitter account were shown to have come from Apple devices (even if Mr Trump himself is understood to use an Android device).

When speaking about the controversial power of the NSA and its surveillance capabilities, Mr Trump said:

"I assume when I pick up my telephone, people are listening to my conversations anyway, if you want to know the truth. It's pretty sad commentary, but I err on the side of security. When you have people that are beheading [you] if you're a Christian and, frankly, for lots of other reasons, when you have the world looking at us and would like to destroy us as quickly as possible, I err on the side of security." (Speaking on Hugh Hewitt radio show, December 2015)

What it means:

We don't really know. Attitudes towards "America First" and support of the military might have assumptions leaning towards Mr Trump at least maintaining the power of the security services in the US, but we're yet to hear firm policy on the specifics. Mr Trump has said he wants to restore the Patriot Act at which, among other things, used to give the NSA powers to collect bulk data on American's phone records until that power was taken away by Congress. As with previous administrations, we can expect the war on terror to be the primary justification for these powers to exist. When it comes to encryption, the Apple row gave Mr Trump a chance to make his thoughts perfectly clear, and while the boycott may have been flippant, his attitudes seem firmly set on supposed security over privacy.

Bringing foreign talent to Silicon Valley

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sundar Pichai, born in India, rose to be the chief executive of Google

The issue:

One point of concern for tech firms is the future of the H1-B visa.

The H1-B is considered vital for technology companies that want to fill their ranks with skilled developers and engineers. It's a temporary residency, but companies can choose to sponsor employees to remain in the US indefinitely.

In his own words:

"I know the H-1B very well. And it's something that I, frankly, use, and I shouldn't be allowed to use it. We shouldn't have it. Very, very bad for workers. And second of all, I think it's very important to say, well, I'm a businessman and I have to do what I have to do. When it's sitting there waiting for you, but it's very bad. It's very bad for business in terms of — and it's very bad for our workers and it's unfair for our workers. And we should end it." (CNN Republican debate, March 2016)

Mr Trump has been seen to have done a U-turn. He seems to believe the H1-B visa is being abused to bring in cheaper labour, rather than skilled labour. He cited an example in Florida where he said American workers at a Disney theme park were being forced to train their cheaper, foreign replacements.

What it means:

Mr Trump is in favour of highly-skilled immigration, particularly when immigrants have come in to study at top US colleges. It seems likely he will either alter or abolish the H1-B visa and attempt to enforce an alternative that clamps down on what he sees as abuses of the current system.

America's readiness for cyberwar

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Researchers predict a major cyberattack within first 100 days of Mr Trump's presidency

The issue:

Cyberattacks are becoming more frequent, more powerful, and more dangerous. Forrester Research on Wednesday predicted that "within the first 100 days, the new president will face a cybercrisis".

And so while much debate in the run up to the election was about Mr Trump's possible control of the nuclear codes, there've been questions over how he'd handle the growing cyber threat from the likes of China, Russia and stateless hacking groups.

In his own words:

"It is a huge problem. I have a son - he's 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers. It's unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe, it's hardly doable. But I will say, we are not doing the job we should be doing. But that's true throughout our whole governmental society. We have so many things that we have to do better. And certainly cyber is one of them." (Presidential debate, September 2016)

The quote above was widely mocked as being utterly incoherent. The New York Daily News called it "an out-of-touch comment that would come from your tech-illiterate grandpa".

Mr Trump was also reluctant to follow the FBI's lead in blaming Russia for hacking the Democratic National Convention - one of several cyberattacks that were arguably pivotal in winning the race for Mr Trump.

But Mr Trump certainly wouldn't be the first person in power to have a lacklustre understanding of how technology works, and so it's broad policy rather than expertise that is most important.

What it means:

Unlike traditional war, where observers can see jets in the sky or tanks rolling across land, cyberwar is much harder to track. It may be that we never learn Mr Trump's precise thoughts on the USA's cyberattack capabilities, and they could be enacted in secret.

His campaign website provides vague descriptions of what his administration would do, including an "immediate review of all US cyber defences and vulnerabilities".

He's also said he wanted to develop the US's offensive capabilities so the country could retaliate against cyberattack. This wouldn't be unprecedented as cyberweapons have been used by the US in the past.

Net Neutrality

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Mr Trump appeared confused by what net neutrality represents

The issue:

For some time a debate has raged over the control of internet traffic. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have called for the ability to provide what would essentially be an internet fast-lane for major, data-intensive services like Netflix. The ISPs would seek to charge the companies to be on this fast-lane, a move described by most in the technology community as extremely anticompetitive and against the spirit of the internet itself. As it stands, we have net neutrality - all traffic on the internet is treated equally.

In his own words:

"Obama's attack on the internet is another top down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target the conservative media." (Twitter, August 2016)

This statement appeared to display a deep ignorance of what net neutrality is. The Fairness Doctrine was a policy in the US which required broadcasters to present a range of views on important topics, like politics. It was overturned in 1987, allowing TV channels to push forward whatever view they want (and the rest is history). Mr Trump's linking of the Fairness Doctrine to Net Neutrality is baffling, as strong net neutrality would favour more views beyond the mainstream media he loves to hate.

What it means:

If we take the above tweet as evidence that Mr Trump has probably not spent much time considering Net Neutrality, then it's fair to say it's probably not at the forefront of his mind and therefore not high on his list of priorities once taking office. Lower down the pecking order, the US court system has come out in favour of neutrality principles.

The AT&T-Time Warner mega-deal

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption CNN's Anderson Cooper working for a channel that may soon be owned by AT&T

The issue:

Telecoms giant AT&T is set to buy Time Warner, thus becoming even more giant.

In his own words:

"As an example of the power structure I'm fighting, AT&T is buying Time Warner and thus CNN, a deal we will not approve in my administration because it's too much concentration of power in the hands of too few." (Speech, October 2016)

It's a fair point about a large concentration of power. AT&T would not only control the biggest network providing information to the masses, but also much of the content they were creating and broadcasting. Time Warner owns HBO and Warner Bros, not to mention CNN, a news outlet attacked repeatedly by Mr Trump and his supporters during campaigning.

AT&T-Time Warner isn't the only deal he's taken aim at, either:

"Comcast's purchase of NBC concentrated far too much power in one massive entity that is trying to tell the voters what to think and what to do. Deals like this destroy democracy and we'll look at breaking that deal up and other deals like that. That should never, ever have been approved in the first place, they're trying to poison the mind of the American voter." (Speech, October 2016)

What it means:

Another "wait and see", unfortunately. At this point, there's just no way of deciphering whether Campaign Trump is the same as President Trump.

If Mr Trump did want to follow through on his words, it wouldn't simply be a case of stepping in and calling a halt. It would be a long, expensive process through the courts that would make Mr Trump look distinctly anti-business. This would especially be the case if the government went after Comcast some five years after it bought NBC.

On Wednesday AT&T offered an olive branch with this rather flattering statement: "From a company perspective, we really look forward to working with President-elect Trump and his transition team.

"His policies and his discussions about infrastructure investment, economic development, and American innovation all fit right in with AT&T's goals."

Amazon's future

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Jeff Bezos might come to regret mocking Mr Trump on Twitter

This issue:

If Mr Trump and Jeff Bezos were rappers, you'd call this a "beef".

Mr Trump has made no effort to hide his disdain for Mr Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon.

Mr Bezos also owns the Washington Post, the newspaper that perhaps did more than any other to take on Mr Trump's campaign.

The newspaper was the first to publish the infamous video of Mr Trump making disparaging remarks about women and bragging about sexual assault.

Mr Trump considers Amazon to be a company that is avoiding tax and is anti-competitive.

In his own words:

"Amazon is getting away with murder tax-wise. [Bezos is] using the Washington Post for power so that the politicians in Washington don't tax Amazon like they should be taxed." (Sean Hannity Show, Fox News, May 2016)

In various tweets, Mr Trump also suggested that Mr Bezos was using the Washington Post, which like many newspapers loses money, as a way of reducing Amazon's tax bill. However, the Washington Post isn't part of Amazon - it's a company Mr Bezos owns privately, so such a move would not be possible.

That said, Amazon is part of a technology collective that goes to great lengths to pay as little tax as possible, prompting law changes in several parts of the world.

Ironically, using big losses as a way to avoid paying taxes is precisely what Mr Trump has done for much of his professional life, a move he said made him "smart".

What it means:

Mr Trump's tweets were an example of the next president taking the bait. The insults followed Mr Bezos saying he'd gladly fund a rocket that would take Mr Trump on a one-way trip into space.

So while Mr Bezos may now regret starting the #SendDonaldToSpace hashtag, we don't know if Mr Trump will see through his threat to single out Amazon. What's more likely is a clamp down on tax avoidance across the board, with a likely focus on the myriad inventive ways tech companies relocate their earnings.

Regardless, Amazon's stock dropped on Wednesday in anticipation for what might be on the horizon. While other tech stocks also went down, none were quite as pronounced as Amazon.

The future of energy tech

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Elon Musk's company has benefitted from government subsidies

The issue:

A key area of growth in the US is in renewable energies and businesses built around it. But to accelerate growth of companies like Tesla, the US government has long offered attractive subsidies as a way of tempting in customers who ordinarily could not afford renewable energy.

In his own words:

"The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." (Twitter, November 2012)

One of Mr Trump's strongest areas of support was in the so-called coal country area, traditionally populated by coal mines and industries. The region has suffered as concern about climate change pushed governments to embrace renewable energy instead.

Mr Trump turned that on its head by calling climate change a hoax, playing to a crowd that would not notice, nor care, about the incremental changes in climate the Earth is going through.

What it means:

Mr Trump has pledged to "unleash America's $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, plus hundreds of years in clean coal reserves", and the money for it may in part come from ditching subsidies offered to renewable energy efforts.

It may mean that tax credits given to people buying electric cars are no longer be offered. At the moment, a Tesla Model 3, for instance, is reduced from $35,000 to $27,500 when tax credits are factored in.

In the immediate future, Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, who said Mr Trump was "not the right guy" for the White House, may have a even tougher job convincing Tesla shareholders to push forward with his plan to buy solar panel company SolarCity. The vote on that takes place later this month.

Image copyright Getty Images

What all of this means together...

Uncertainty, frustration and an increased fragility for the global home of tech innovation.

Mr Trump certainly won't want to go down as the president who destroyed Silicon Valley, but the concern here is that of the few policies that have been explained in detail, some seem directly at odds with each other.

How do you promote "great" American companies which provide jobs, while simultaneously dragging Amazon, a massive employer and innovator, through the courts? How do you protect innovation at Tesla when taking aim at efforts to curb climate change?

Silicon Valley may be in America, but it's by no means an entirely American success story. The region's success grew out of being an attractive, progressive destination for the best brains in the world.

This industry worries that may be under threat.


Read more:

View from shell-shocked Silicon Valley

New Zealand immigration site's traffic surges

Obama to welcome Trump to White House

Should anyone worry about Trump's victory


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