Why we should roll out the red carpet for President Trump’s tech refugees

by Peter Griffin / 13 February, 2017

Big names of the US tech sector meet Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

In the surreal period between his election and his inauguration, president-elect Donald Trump invited Silicon Valley’s tech ­luminaries to Trump Tower.

The people who squeezed in around his marble table were collectively worth close to $200 billion. There were Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Apple boss Tim Cook. Google co-founder Larry Page was there, as well as SpaceX and Tesla chief executive Elon Musk.

A photo emerged from the meeting of Trump and Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal – and New Zealand citizen, although few knew it at the time – doing a weird handshake. It all seemed very cosy, if a bit awkward. Unlike at an earlier roundtable with US media moguls, which amounted to a dressing-down, Trump lavished praise on the tech sector. Yet with the exception of Thiel, a libertarian who donated more than $1 million to his campaign, they were all ­Clinton backers.

Most of what was said remains private, but media coverage dwelt on the potential for a pragmatic ­partnership between a deal-making President keen on getting things done and a group of digital disrupters with the tools to help him do so. Now, less than two months later, that potential appears to have evaporated: several of those at the meeting came out against Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Immigration is the lifeblood of the US tech sector, which has been lobbying the Government to loosen visa restrictions to allow in more talent. That seems a hopeless prospect now as Trump follows through on his wall-building, extreme-vetting, ­America-first policies. Never mind that the biggest threat to US ­employment won’t come from exporting manufacturing jobs, but from automation at home.

Trump and and $1 million donor Peter Thiel. Photo/Getty Images

If it wasn’t obvious before, it is now: Trump will be terrible for tech. The free flow of ideas that is key to the boom of the past 20 years is anathema to the President. The question now is whether the ­Silicon Valley companies that have such influence in our lives will ­facilitate the autocrat or fight him. There might be, after all, lucrative tech deals on the table as Trump looks to beef up cybersecurity, cut the cost of government and attempt to identify illegal aliens. It’s slightly creepy that Thiel, the Kiwi at Trump’s table, controls Palantir, a massive data analytics company that has the technology to help the President do all of the above.

Elsewhere, there are glimmers of hope. Bezos has joined a lawsuit to try to overturn Trump’s executive order, which has been suspended after an initial court ruling, and a number of tech leaders have publicly condemned it. This will be the first fight of many and how the sector chooses to deal with Trump could help define our relationship with technology over the next decade.

“Don't be evil”

Google’s unofficial corporate motto “Don’t be evil” will be echoing in the heads of software coders and computer engineers lower down the ranks of America’s high-tech companies as they consider whether to jump on the Trump bandwagon or join the resistance. Already, the ranks of the anti-Trump Tech Solidarity movement are swelling.

Trump’s stances on everything from free trade to net neutrality will reverberate all the way to New Zealand, potentially influencing how we use the internet, run our companies and develop our own tech talent. If his presidency creates one opportunity for us, it’s that New Zealand – as Sir Paul Callaghan put it – is the place “where talent wants to live”. Thiel wanted a New Zealand passport because he considered our country his “utopia”.

Let’s make sure that tech-savvy refugees fleeing Trump and those refused entry to the US because of their religion or country of origin come here to bolster our own innovation economy. We should welcome them with open arms.

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