President-elect Donald Trump’s Wednesday summit with the leaders of some of America’s most valuable and powerful tech companies was highly anticipated by the tech press, but aside from some uncomfortable photos in which everyone looks about 40 minutes out from having eaten a Trump Tower Grill taco bowl, the meeting’s specific talking points were unknown.
Last night, tech’s best-sourced reporter, Kara Swisher, produced a few more details about the meeting, mostly revealing what we already knew: that Donald Trump likes to tell people what he thinks they want to hear. “Anything we can do to help this go on and really be there for you, you’ll call my people, you’ll call me, it doesn’t make any difference,” Trump told the group.
At the top of the gathering (I may not have the order of all the topics exactly right), Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella brought up perhaps the most thorny issue: Immigration and how the government can help tech with things like H-1B visas to keep and bring in more talent. Nadella pointed out that much of the company’s spending on research and development was in the U.S., even if 50 percent of the sales were elsewhere, so that immigration would benefit those here.
Surprisingly to the group, Trump apparently responded favorably. “Let’s fix that,” he said, without a specific promise, and then asked, “What can I do to make it better?”
“Let’s fix immigration restrictions,” said Donald Trump, the xenophobic decaying holiday gourd whose main campaign plank was building an enormous wall along the southern border to keep Mexican rapists out.
Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg also brought up the issue of maternity leave, which Trump said he would look into without giving any specifics and then punted to Mike Pence, a man not known for his particular political advocacy for women. A source told Recode that the blustery president-elect was “reasonable and fair the whole time.” (If there’s one thing Trump is actually consistent on, it’s his need for the approval of those richer than him.)
What seems excessively clear, if unsurprising, is that the “summit” was more of a photo opportunity than anything else. There was no dressing-down of the tech executives who declined to support Trump during the campaign; nor was there a sense of how Trump might work with (or against) the tech industry, or the issues it cares about, in the future.
Equally clear in the near-ubiquitous silence from executives at the meeting is that they’re unwilling to speak out against the president-elect. If Trump actually does something about H-1B visas and leaves the international tax-avoidance schemes used by these companies alone, they seem more than happy to let him wreak havoc everywhere else.
But it could go the other way, too. If we want to know how a Trump administration will relate to the tech industry, we’re better off looking at actual policy proposals than meetings in Trump Tower. The biggest issue facing the industry in the coming months is the almost-certain death of net neutrality. Earlier this month, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler announced his plans to resign on Inauguration Day, leaving a vacancy that will be filled by anti-regulation FCC member Ajit Pai, the ranking Republican on the commission. Net neutrality forbids throttling bandwidth or letting certain client pay ISPs for prioritizing their network. In essence, it makes the internet, technically speaking, an even playing field.
In the wake of the election, Pai has said that the principle’s “days are numbered,” an unsurprising statement that means a ton of power for ISPs and mobile carriers, and a virtual death sentence for any internet destination that can’t pay to play. Even large sites like Google, Facebook, and Netflix support net neutrality — they don’t want to be forced to cut deals with the T-Mobiles and Cablevisions of the world to ensure their sites are fast-loading and accessible.
Trump’s tech summit was little more than a glorified photo op. The real tech issues relating to his presidency will be debated in conference rooms in Washington, D.C., far from the glitzy halls of Trump Tower.