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Trump and Tech

Columnist: Michael E. Duffy
January, 2017 Issue
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Michael E. Duffy
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In his 1997 book The Art of the Deal he [Trump] wrote "I don't even know how to turn on a computer."

I’m writing this in early December, but barring some unexpected event, Donald Trump will become the POTUS on January 20, 2017. It seems appropriate to consider what this means for technology, if anything. To quote Scientific American, “President-elect Donald Trump’s views on technology and tech policy were not prominent campaign features on his contentious path to the White House.”

Mr. Trump’s best-known use of tech is, of course, Twitter. His handle is @realDonaldTrump (twitter.com/realDonaldTrump) and, using his smartphone, he broadcasts his apparently unfiltered views on everything from Saturday Night Live to international relations. For example, this multi-tweet from 4:21 a.m. December 4 concerns U.S.-based manufacturing:

“… There will be a tax on our soon to be strong border of 35 percent for these companies wanting to sell their product, cars, A.C. units etc., back across the border. This tax will make leaving financially difficult, but these companies are able to move between all 50 states, with no tax or tariff being charged. Please be forewarned prior to making a very expensive mistake! THE UNITED STATES IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS”

Whether you agree with him or not, he has 16.7 million followers, compared to President Obama (@POTUS) with 12.4 million, and Twitter gives him a direct line to his supporters. He (or his staff) also blocks Twitter users who offend him, which has become both a badge of honor for some, as well as a hashtag on Facebook and Twitter (#blockedByTrump). But using Twitter is no more indicative of Mr. Trump’s interest in technology that driving a car shows an interest in automobile engineering.

As a 70-year-old, Trump predates the computer revolution of the mid-1980s. In his 1997 book The Art of The Deal, he wrote “I don't even know how to turn on a computer.” His tweets and public comments reflect a shallow understanding of how “the cyber,” as he called it, works. Of course, that could describe any number of people his age. So the real question is, how will President Trump make decisions about technology policy?

In an early move, Trump has named Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, as a member of his transition team’s executive committee, and Thiel is said to be making recommendations regarding key technology-related positions in the new Administration. Thiel is the exception among tech moguls, having openly supported Trump and contributed $1.25 million to Trump’s campaign. Despite his Silicon Valley cred, Thiel majored in philosophy at Stanford and graduated from Stanford Law. He’s no bit-twiddling nerd. He brings a network of contacts and companies to the table, along with formidable smarts and a desire to shake up politics-as-usual. It will be interesting to see what impact—if any—he has on Trump’s policies.

Congress established the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in 1976. Its charter is to “advise the President and others within the Executive Office of the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs.” One member of OSTP is the Chief Technology Officer, presently Meghan Smith (a former vice-president of business development at Google). She holds two degrees in mechanical engineering from MIT and is widely regarded as an excellent match for the job, but who Mr. Trump will place in the position of CTO remains to be seen—if the position will be filled at all. Obama established this position, so Trump may eliminate it simply as part of his “drain the swamp” activity.

From a policy standpoint, one key technology issue facing the new Administration is net neutrality, the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) should not favor or handicap network transmission based on content or source. Comcast, for example, throttled Netflix traffic over its network—aggravating Netflix customers—until Netflix made a deal with Comcast (it’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the general idea). Under President Obama, the FCC brought net neutrality into effect in 2015 by classifying ISPs as common carriers. Telecom companies appealed that ruling, which was nonetheless upheld. AT&T said it will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

Trump has expressed (via Twitter) the opinion that “Obama’s attack on the internet is another top down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target conservative media.” The Fairness Doctrine applied to broadcasters, not telecom, and dealt with fair presentation of controversial topics. The FCC formally revoked it in 2011. It’s hard to tell from his tweet how well the President-elect understands net neutrality. Based on the general attitude of Republicans toward net neutrality (it interferes with the free market), however, it’s likely the principle of net neutrality will come under fire in the coming year.

It remains to be seen what will actually transpire with the new POTUS and tech. For myself, I’ve adopted a wait-and-see strategy, given that what Mr. Trump says at any given time is subject to change. If things change for the worse, you can bet I’ll have some opinions and advice to offer.

 

 

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