Not long ago, many leading technologists considered themselves too lofty and idealistic to concern themselves with the petty affairs of government. John Perry Barlow, a lion of the early internet, addressed his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” to the “governments of the industrial world,” saying that for him and his fellow netizens, these creaky institutions had “no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”
But that was before privacy scandals, antitrust investigations, congressional hearings, Chinese tariffs, presidential tweets and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Now, as they try to fend off regulation and avoid being broken up, some of the largest companies in Silicon Valley are tripping over their Allbirds in a race to cozy up to the United States government. These companies’ motives vary — some are vying for lucrative public-sector contracts, while others are lobbying against regulation by painting China as a red menace that must be defeated for the good of the country.
Either way, the game is the same: Salute the flag, save our bacon.
The latest example of Silicon Valley’s patriotic playacting comes courtesy of Peter Thiel, the Trump-backing venture capitalist. In an op-ed in The New York Times this month, Mr. Thiel took Google to task for opening an artificial intelligence lab in Beijing while canceling a controversial Pentagon contract, accusing the company of trying to “evade responsibility for the good of the country.”
Mr. Thiel’s obvious conflicts of interest aside (he is on the board of Facebook, Google’s rival, and is the chairman of the technology firm Palantir, which has lucrative government contracts of its own), seeing him lecture anyone on patriotism is rich. He was among the first major supporters of the Seasteading movement — a group of libertarians who wanted to flee the United States and build a floating city in international waters — and in 2011, he became a New Zealand citizen after buying up property there. (“It would give me great pride to let it be known that I am a New Zealand citizen and an enthusiastic supporter of the country,” Mr. Thiel wrote in his citizenship application.)
But Mr. Thiel, who did not respond to a request for comment, is far from the only tech titan trading in his hoodie for a flag pin.
Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief, has also been warning that if the social network — the proud, American social network, that is — is broken up or harshly regulated, it will be only a matter of time before China takes over the global tech industry.
In an interview last year, Mr. Zuckerberg said that if Facebook were broken up by American regulators, “the alternative, frankly, is going to be the Chinese companies.”
David Marcus, one of Mr. Zuckerberg’s lieutenants and the executive in charge of Facebook’s digital currency project, Libra, echoed that point while testifying before Congress last month.
“I believe that if America does not lead innovation in the digital currency and payments area, others will,” Mr. Marcus said. “If we fail to act, we could soon see a digital currency controlled by others whose values are dramatically different.”
Mr. Zuckerberg, who speaks Mandarin, is an odd choice to lead the charge against China. He has spent much of the last decade trying desperately to curry favor with the Chinese government in hopes of getting Facebook’s apps — which are banned there — permission to operate in one of the world’s most lucrative markets. Mr. Zuckerberg even reportedly offered to let Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, name his second child. (Mr. Xi declined.)
Google, too, is rallying around the flag. The company’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, went to the White House to visit with President Trump in March, to discuss government contracts and reassure the president that Google does not discriminate against conservatives. This month, in a series of tweets attacking Mr. Pichai and Google, Mr. Trump recalled that meeting, which he described as “Mr. Pichai working very hard to explain how much he liked me, what a great job the Administration is doing, that Google was not involved with China’s military, that they didn’t help Crooked Hillary over me in the 2016 Election.”
Like Mr. Zuckerberg, Mr. Pichai was a China booster before he began distancing himself from the country. Last year, Mr. Pichai had a large team of Google engineers building a prototype search engine, called Dragonfly, that was designed to be compatible with China’s censorship regime. The project was dropped amid heated internal dissent from Google employees. But it reportedly would have blocked sites like Wikipedia, as well as other material considered objectionable by Chinese authorities.
Amazon and Apple, two tech giants that love America so much that they have gone to elaborate lengths to avoid paying taxes to its Treasury, are also promoting themselves as national champions. After Mr. Trump criticized Apple’s plans to do some of the assembly of its Mac Pro in China, the company reiterated its desire to keep much of the computer’s assembly in the United States. And Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, has knocked rival firms for insufficient patriotism, saying that “if big tech companies are going to turn their back on the U.S. Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble.”
Representatives for Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple all declined to comment.
Conspicuous patriotism is not a new tactic for companies accused of bad behavior. In the 1980s and 1990s, defenders of American tech giants like IBM and Microsoft argued that those companies’ monopolistic behaviors were necessary to stave off competition from Japanese rivals. During World War II, Hollywood movie studios delayed a federal antitrust crackdown, in part by agreeing to help the military in the war effort.
Meredith Whittaker, a co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University and a former Google employee, characterized the tech industry’s scaremongering about China as a tactical move meant to deflect criticism.
“It’s a really convenient narrative,” Ms. Whittaker said. “It evokes nationalism and a red scare trope that has worked in the past. And it implies that regulation, accountability and taking a pause to consider ethics would be counter to ‘winning.’”
Patriotic posturing may be a cynical tactic, but it could also be a smart one. Today’s big tech companies are in a better negotiating position than most industries under fire. The meteoric growth of companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon has bolstered the American stock market and made Silicon Valley a global innovation hub. Even if the motives of the tech giants are questionable, the importance of technologies like 5G connectivity and artificial intelligence to the country’s competitive position isn’t lost on lawmakers.
Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat who represents parts of Silicon Valley in Congress, has called for greater regulation of tech companies. But in an interview this month, he told me that the risk of losing ground to China worried him.
“There is a risk that we could see a Berlin digital wall,” Mr. Khanna said. “The question is, are the values of liberty, privacy and freedom of speech going to be embedded in technology platforms? China’s platforms do not have many of the values that liberal democracies believe in.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with the belief that America’s values are superior to those found in Shanghai and Shenzhen, or that American tech companies should act in the country’s best interest. But lawmakers should be appropriately wary of Silicon Valley’s charm campaign, and they should avoid conflating what’s good for Facebook, Google and other tech companies with what’s good for the nation. Tech executives might be whistling “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but they really just want to be left alone.