Can Trump and tech get along?

Much of Silicon Valley was shocked to learn Donald Trump was elected president. Now, they're asking themselves how they can work with him to improve the country's tech sector. 

Evan Vucci/AP
President-elect Donald Trump speaks during an election night rally in New York on Wednesday.

Most of Silicon Valley didn’t receive the news Donald Trump was elected president on Tuesday well. One startup founder went on an expletive-laden rant, melting down onstage at a conference in Portugal. An AOL co-founder expressed “disappointment” in a Twitter post. Two investors even pledged to fund a campaign for California to secede from the rest of the nation.

Aside from a select few including Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, the technology industry has indignantly opposed the Trump campaign. But now that Mr. Trump has upset Hillary Clinton, the industry is asking itself how it can work with a president whose positions it resented.

Some leaders and observers have voiced concern over how Trump could affect the immigration of highly skilled workers, as well as internet privacy and cybersecurity. Others have urged caution because, they say, it all depends on the company president-elect Trump keeps.  

Anne Weismann, executive director of the Washington-based Campaign for Accountability, cites Maureen Ohlhausen, a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as most likely to chair the FTC for Trump.

“Tech companies would have nothing to fear from the FTC under Olhausen,” Ms. Weismann writes Wednesday in an email to The Christian Science Monitor, referring to Ms. Olhausen’s general opposition to strong antitrust or privacy enforcement. Olhausen “would be a huge gift” to Google, writes Weismann.

She also mentions Mr. Thiel, an ardent Libertarian who has downplayed competition and praised monopolies such as Google. After Thiel publicly endorsed Trump and gave $1.25 million to his campaign last month, some wondered if he was angling for an appointment in the Trump administration, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The problem with speculating, however, is that Trump has painted a broad picture of some of his policies, while offering conflicting statements about how he views the Valley. Trump told The New York Times in June he has “great respect for Silicon Valley.” But he also repeatedly attacked industry leaders and policies that affect them. Trump alleged that Google had manipulated its search results to favor Mrs. Clinton. He also threw barbs at Amazon’s Jeff Bezos over the company’s taxes, prompting Mr. Bezos to propose Trump be launched into space.

Any outright conflict with the technology sector would be a shift from the close relationship the Obama administration and the industry have, as Max Lewontin reported for The Christian Science Monitor: 

President Obama appointed the first chief technology officer in 2009, a chair that’s now occupied by Megan Smith, a veteran of Google. He has pushed for the Federal Communication’s approval of rules on net neutrality, a cause supported by many prominent tech figures.

In July, an open letter signed by 150 current and former executives of technology firms signed warned that Trump could reverse that.

"We believe that government plays an important role in the technology economy by investing in infrastructure, education and scientific research," the letter reads. "Donald Trump articulates few policies beyond erratic and contradictory pronouncements. His reckless disregard for our legal and political institutions threatens to upend what attracts companies to start and scale in America."

One consistent concern of the industry has been how Trump’s promises to cut back on immigration could affect its efforts to attract more skilled foreign workers under the H-1B visa program. The program is intended to keep talented workers in the US by offering them a path to a green card. Silicon Valley has lobbied to raise the cap of the program above 85,000 people a year.

"The big unknown is whether a Donald Trump presidency will lead to a technology immigration talent drain, either by choice or by policy," writes Shira Ovide, a columnist for Bloomberg. "Of course it's not clear what immigration policies might be pursued by the incoming Trump administration or by a Congress with a clear Republican majority in both the House and Senate. During his campaign, of course, Trump advocated for stricter limits on immigration."

On Wednesday, some venture capitalists were that hopeful Trump’s anti-regulation policies would benefit businesses.  

"I think if you look at what Trump should be is pro-business, so based on his speech this morning, you hope that he understands the magnitude of the office he just got," Jeff Schumacher, the chief executive of BCG Digital Ventures, told CNBC.

But the president-elect's threats to impose steep tariffs on goods manufactured in China would hurt companies such as Apple that depend on a global supply-chain, Gregory Autry, an assistant professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, told TechCrunch. 

“Trump is definitely a problem for that model,” said Dr. Autry. “His economic policies are focused on punishing China for its trade abuses and returning manufacturing to the U.S.”

Analysts are also split on how the Trump administration would address cybersecurity and internet freedom. According to Newsweek, Trump has promised to develop cyber-weapons to protect against threats such as North Korea and China. But he also said he is against net neutrality – the principle all internet service providers should treat traffic equally – and said that in the event of a cyber war he would close parts of the internet.

Then, there are some who have said the Trump's campaign was full of "false advertising," meaning there are policies he just won't follow through with.

"I think actually his policies, I bet you, are going to embrace a lot of Democratic values in terms of how they are enacted. I think a lot of incendiary stuff he put out there was to get elected," Mood Rowghani, a general partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, said in a panel discussion at the Web Summit conference in Portugal on Wednesday, according to CNBC.

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