Silicon Valley’s Political Perils

FacebookLast week’s news underscored growing concerns over the politicization of tech companies. With his inimitable style, President Trump claimed on Twitter that Google shows political bias by skewing the news found in online searches. Relatedly, a group of some 100 conservative-leaning Facebook employees formed an online community to escape the strictures of a “political monoculture” and provide themselves a “safe” place for “ideological diversity” among their 25,000 co-workers.

It’s a truism that Silicon Valley leans left, but the average tech millionaire is not easy to pigeonhole ideologically. A revealing, if little-noted, 2017 study from Stanford University compared more than 600 “elite technology company leaders and founders,” 80 percent of them millionaires, with more than “1,100 elite partisan donors” of both political persuasions. The distinctions are revelatory for anyone interested in mapping the future of American politics. “Increasingly, technology entrepreneurs are using their personal wealth and firms’ power to exercise political influence,” the survey’s authors observe. “For example, recent federal candidates have referred to Silicon Valley as a ‘political ATM’.” The study found that 80 percent of tech millionaires overwhelmingly donate to Democrats over Republicans; hardly a surprising finding.

But the key reveal of the Stanford analysis is not about party alignment in donations: it’s in what can only be called a kind of political schizophrenia around the core ideologies associated with each party. On one hand, the study showed that Silicon Valley’s titans are firmly aligned with Democrats on social issues, what the survey calls “liberal redistributive, social, and globalistic policies.”  But on the other hand, the survey shows that the ideologies—if not the financial support—of tech millionaires solidly align with Republicans on issues relating to the regulatory environment, specifically around such topics as drones, data storage, self-driving cars, and employee policies.

This ideological rift prompted the Stanford researchers to conclude that tech’s business elites are donating politically against their “self-interest.” For analysts and political operatives, the question is whether that’s an immutable or malleable political reality. After all, it’s not just Republicans like President Trump attacking Silicon Valley; Senator Bernie Sanders, the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, is one of many in that caucus taking on the tech giants on “fairness” issues surrounding income inequality in general and Amazon CEO’s Jeff Bezos’s uber-wealth in particular.

It’s risky for companies to become identified with a specific political orientation. The recent evidence of a political tilt at numerous Silicon Valley firms—or at least among their leaders—has ignited controversy, not just in Washington but also in the tech community itself. At least one Valley executive worries that “political correctness” could hurt innovation, the mother’s milk of the tech sector. Google’s firing of engineer James Damore for raising questions about gender differences on an internal discussion board showed the willingness of tech companies to police political expression.

There is a real existential risk for tech companies to be found in the historical propensity of governments to declare new tech enterprises, especially new means of communication, as inherently monopolistic—and thus inherently unfair. Back in 1949, on the theory that radio broadcast companies had monopolistic control of that medium, Congress ordered broadcasters to “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of public importance.” The Fairness Doctrine would survive for nearly four decades, before it was revoked in 1987.

Some Democrats sought to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine a decade or so ago, in response to the rise of talk radio, which became overwhelmingly conservative after 1987. Now, some Republicans (and Democrats, too) are looking again at the notion of “fairness” in the context of the dominant market share enjoyed by the likes of Facebook or Google. Google’s global share of “search” has reached 90percent, and Senator Orrin Hatch has already sent a letter to the FTC to request an investigation of anti-competitive practices at the company.

When it comes to issues surrounding access to accurate and “fair” news and information in particular, the challenging question is whether anyone can easily see if there is (or isn’t) an algorithmic finger on the scale of fairness. In the history of the news business, this is an unprecedented concern. The designers and coders of the algorithms respond that the Web’s interstices are arcane and not easy for the layman to understand. In effect, the experts are saying: it’s complicated, so trust us. From a technical perspective, it would indeed be difficult to come up with a “user interface” that provided credible transparency about how news and information are curated or accessed on Web platforms. But one could have said the same thing, circa 1990, about converting the Arpanet’s technically arcane TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) into a Web system so simple that preschool children can use it now.

As Steve Jobs famously said two decades ago, “simple can be harder than complex.” But conquering complexity used to be what animated Silicon Valley. That is, in fact, how Google got started. It’s time to revive that zeitgeist, and make the power of news on the Internet not just easy to use, but easy to trust.