Analysis: Trump’s First 100 Days Through the Tech Industry Lens

Donald Trump spent his 100th day in office in ways that would appeal to his working class base—holding a campaign-style rally in Harrisburg, PA, where he confirmed his campaign commitment to controlling immigration. Trump also signed an executive order to create a White House office of trade and manufacturing policy, which aims to protect American jobs.

Saturday’s activities might shore up support from Trump’s core constituencies, but they also seem emblematic of a continuing tension between the new president’s worldview and the interests of the technology industry. Before his inauguration, Trump convened prominent tech leaders to advise him, and included them in his economic council. But they haven’t always won their point, as President Trump continues to focus on economic policies intended to revive shuttered coal mines and factories to help their unemployed workers.

Immigration has been the most contentious issue between tech and the new administration, starting with Trump’s first attempt at a travel ban on Jan. 27. As president, Trump also followed through on his campaign criticisms of the H-1B visa program as an alleged source of cheap labor for tech companies at the cost of American workers.

Tech companies, worried about their ability to hire skilled workers from abroad, have joined lawsuits that blocked both of Trump’s two attempts to enforce travel restrictions on people from a group of predominantly Muslim nations. Some company leaders—and their staffers—also saw the travel ban as a form of discrimination based on religion. In addition, the tech industry has decried Trump’s proposed restrictions on H-1B visas. And some leaders have warned that his trade policies could affect their companies’ international markets.

Tech more enmeshed in politics

To give a little perspective on President Trump’s early relationship with the tech industry, it’s illuminating to look back at how technology factored in at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency. The role of tech in politics and society seems to have increased dramatically since that time—little more than a decade ago.

When Obama announced his candidacy in February 2007, Facebook was a three-year-old startup. Twitter’s message-sharing platform had only been open for about eight months. When Obama won the election in 2008, he was considered astute for his novel strategy of using these social media networks intensively to get young people engaged in politics.

Fast forward to 2017: Trump did more than follow Obama’s lead, making almost daily use of Twitter as a semi-official conduit for his policy leanings both during his campaign and after taking office. His continuing Twitter habit as president, however, puts the social media company in the political spotlight because his tweets have sparked controversy. They alarm critics who fear that the president’s off-the-cuff remarks are shaking the confidence of U.S. allies, and may even trigger armed conflicts with adversaries. Facebook, now considered one of the most powerful news outlets in the nation, is under scrutiny for allegedly amplifying the impact of fake news stories through its sharing mechanism, confusing voters, and perhaps (unintentionally) assisting a Russian campaign to promote Trump’s candidacy by spreading falsehoods, or leaks from the Clinton campaign.

Even if tech companies want to stay out of the complex political fray, their influence in communications, culture, and the workplace is so pervasive that they’re inevitably drawn in. For instance, as tech businesses gather more and more personal information from smartphones and Web-connected devices at home, law enforcement agencies are demanding access to that data to solve crimes or prevent terrorist attacks. Tech companies have to decide whether to resist or surrender the information.

The tech industry has also been cast recently as a key actor in the nation’s unemployment picture. Critics of Trump’s anti-immigration stance and his protectionist views on trade argue that the loss of American jobs isn’t caused so much by newcomers from other lands or foreign competitors, but by automation. There’s now widespread speculation that current advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will rapidly exacerbate this trend.

Trump, however, hasn’t tried to rally his core supporters to vilify tech companies over the automation issue. In fact, his treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin downplayed automation’s threat to jobs, saying in March that the issue was “not even on our radar screen,” Business Insider reported.

Some of Trump’s policy goals, such as a reduction in corporate tax rates from 35 percent to 15 percent, could benefit tech companies along with other businesses—if he can get it past Republican deficit hawks. In a tweet Saturday, Recode estimated that Google’s parent company Alphabet would clear $47 billion under the Trump plan. And, like companies in other fields, technology businesses might favor Trump’s drive to prune the number of government regulations.

But Trump has also advanced policy directions that run counter to the interests advanced by many tech companies.

Travel bans and H-1B visas

President Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order suddenly halted entry into the United States for people from seven primarily Muslim nations: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Sudan. Federal appellate judges have since blocked this order, as well as an amended version that eliminated Iraq as one of the restricted countries.

The attempted travel ban is one of a series of Trump actions that some tech companies see as a threat to the pipeline of skilled international talent they tap to meet their growing need for programmers, engineers, and other workers. That pipeline begins in U.S. universities, where many non-U.S. citizens land in the country for the first time on student visas. They then hopscotch from one visa type to the next to take internships and tech jobs; some eventually qualify for permanent residency.

Although the travel ban orders are on hold, U.S. universities still fear they’ll see declines in foreign student university enrollments, and tech companies worry that skilled international workers will hesitate to accept job offers in the United States. Even candidates from India and other countries not named in the travel ban orders may shy away, they say, because uncertainty still reigns about the Trump administration’s next moves on the travel restrictions. Other administration measures also add to the uneasiness, such as actions stripping privacy rights from all but American citizens and green card holders at U.S. borders. (Some customs officials have demanded that foreign travelers turn over their phones or other devices, along with the passwords to their social media accounts.)

In April, Trump rolled out plans for new restrictions on H-1B visas, along with measures to tighten up provisions in trade agreements that require companies to hire American workers rather than employing non-U.S. workers at lower pay.

The technology industry maintains that companies can’t meet their hiring needs from the American population alone due to comparatively low numbers of students majoring in science and engineering fields. The immigration restrictions could lead companies to set up branches abroad to fill positions rather than increasing U.S. hires, tech leaders say.

Trade policies in flux

In another of President Trump’s earliest actions, he announced plans on Jan. 23 to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations that would have lowered tariffs and fostered cross-border cooperation. Opponents feared it would encourage the off-shoring of jobs.

The trade agreement had some specific tech angles: it would have prevented member nations from requiring that their citizens’ data be stored only in their own countries, for example. This is an obstacle to international data-sharing across borders that can be a headache for Web-based software and business operations. The TPP was supported by the Consumer Technology Association and big companies including Google, Apple, and Facebook, though it was criticized by digital right groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation over concerns about copyright protections.

Companies in all fields are living with uncertainty over the fate of an existing major trade deal. As a campaigner, Trump declared he would rescind the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an accord that governs trade among the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Trump has recently softened that stance, signaling that he would be willing to renegotiate the agreement instead. But in an interview Saturday, he also said he would terminate the agreement if he couldn’t get a good deal.

Internet Rules: Net neutrality and privacy

Trump’s appointee as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, has proposed broad regulatory changes that would overturn a key operating principle governing the Internet: net neutrality.

Under net neutrality rules, providers of high-speed Internet such as Comcast and AT&T must give equal service to all online content, rather than putting some websites, messages, or videos at an advantage in reaching audiences. That means they can’t offer faster video streaming to movie channels for a fee, for example. Facebook, Google, and Netflix support the rule, but technology companies are not unanimous on the issue.

Trump, his FCC chairman, and Congress also took steps to free Internet service providers, including cable and telecommunications companies, to collect browsing histories and other personal information about their customers and sell it to advertisers or other buyers, without asking for the customers’ permission.

Some observers say that if consumers become more wary about privacy intrusions stemming from their use of the Internet, they might form a larger market for companies that provide services such as encryption and virtual private networks (VPNs), which can disguise the identity of a user browsing the Internet. On the other hand, there’s speculation that a greater consciousness of privacy concerns arising from digital life could shrink markets for new tech products such as the Amazon Echo, a voice-activated home assistant, or Web-connected cars, toys, refrigerators, and light bulbs.

Federal funding for scientific research

President Trump’s budget proposals for the 2018 fiscal year called for deep cuts in funding for the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies that conduct research in biomedical fields as well as the physical sciences. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, DC-based non-profit research group, warned in March that the proposals would deprive industry of the basic research it builds on to develop new products and grow the economy.

On Monday, Congress rejected most of the administration’s fiscal priorities in this area, in a budget agreement that will govern federal spending until September if it is approved by the full House and Senate and signed by President Trump. Instead of cutting the NIH budget by $1.2 billion for the remainder of 2017, as President Trump had proposed, lawmakers increased the agency’s budget by $2 billion.

The budget agreement preserves or increases funding for other agencies that the Trump administration had marked for cuts: the Department of Energy, DOE’s Advance Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), and NASA. The agreement cut $81 million from the Environmental Protection Agency, but avoided the much steeper cuts favored by the administration for projects including climate change research.

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