Oct 23, 2020 - Technology

Tech is learning that everything is politics

Illustration of a desktop computer with the screen covered in American flag stickers. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

It's one political minefield after another for tech companies this year as the industry faces a rash of concerns including antitrust pressure, rampant misinformation and a pre-election tightening of screws from the Trump administration.

Why it matters: For much of Silicon Valley, politics has, over the past decade, gone from a non-consideration to a nagging occasional distraction to an all-consuming force that threatens some companies' very existence. New products and features, meanwhile, have gone from being all the buzz to largely an afterthought.

Driving the news: Just recently...

Google was hit with an antitrust lawsuit from the Justice Department over tactics prosecutors contend it uses to smother would-be competition in online search.

  • The case steers clear of overtly political issues like claims of anti-conservative bias, but it still illustrates Google's inability to fend off Washington scrutiny — and Big Tech's fallen fortunes with both political parties.
  • Many progressives have come out in support of the suit, and Democratic state attorneys general are likely to introduce some antitrust accusations of their own. (Facebook is also under antitrust investigation at the Federal Trade Commission, which may be drawing closer to a decision on whether to file suit, per Thursday reports from the Washington Post and New York Times.)
  • Google separately caught flak over a newly revealed cloud contract supporting the Trump administration's monitoring of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Uber faced a new lawsuit from a group of drivers who say the company is trying to exert political influence over them with in-app messages pushing a California ballot measure that would ensure gig-economy companies can classify their workers as independent contractors and not employees.

  • Uber and other firms have poured nearly $200 million into a campaign to promote the ballot initiative, which would override state standards established judicially and codified in a new law that make it hard for companies to avoid treating their workers as employees.
  • Having to comply with the law could upend the business models of companies like Uber and Lyft, which have been battling in court for months to avoid reclassifying their drivers. Polling from late last month showed Californians split on the ballot measure.

Facebook and Twitter wrestled with what to do about questionably sourced stories from conservative media outlets that appear to be based on files stolen from Hunter Biden.

  • Their initial calls to limit the reach of the first story on the matter, from the New York Post, ignited fury from conservatives, prompting Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans to vote Thursday to authorize subpoenas to force Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify before the panel before the election, unless they do so willingly.

Microsoft heard from Trump's Labor Department, which said it was looking into whether Microsoft's pledge to double the number of Black people it employs in leadership by 2025 constitutes unlawful racial discrimination.

  • Microsoft, which says it's confident it is complying with all employment laws, is one of many tech firms also grappling with Trump's recent executive order aimed at eliminating certain diversity trainings.

Expensify CEO David Barrett sent an exceptionally strongly worded e-mail to his company's customers on Thursday, saying that "anything less than a vote for Biden is a vote against democracy."

  • "I know you don’t want to hear this from me. And I guarantee I don’t want to say it. But we are facing an unprecedented attack on the foundations of democracy itself."

The big picture: It's a lot. And it's crowding out business as usual.

  • Apple's first 5G iPhones hit stores on Friday. Sony and Microsoft are both out next month with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles.
  • That's the sort of flagship next-gen hardware that would have caught most of the tech world's (or at least tech press's) attention just a few years ago. Now, it barely registers.

Yes, but: Some companies are dealing with the politically supercharged times by trying to disengage.

  • Twitter dissolved its political action committee, telling Business Insider in a statement Thursday the move is "in line with our belief that political influence should be earned, not bought."
  • Cryptocurrency software firm Coinbase early this month said that, going forward, it won't take any political stances not directly related to its core business and would bar employees from talking politics among each other.

The bottom line: Disengaging probably isn't a serious comprehensive or long-term option. Politics will find tech companies whether they like it or not.

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