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FBI Chief, U.S. Attorney General Visit Silicon Valley

January 8, 2016, 2:04 PM UTC
'Innovation' street sign, Silicon Valley, California, USA
Photograph by Bruce T. Brown—Getty Images

The federal government will make a show of force in Silicon Valley on Friday. A bevy of top government officials, including FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, plan to meet with top Valley companies including Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR), and Apple (AAPL) to discuss how social media platforms can help combat terrorists.

The summit calls to mind the saying about what happens when an unstoppable force (the tech industry) meets an immovable object (the United States government). Law-enforcement, national security, and intelligence officials are increasingly annoyed with tech concerns for not doing their part in what once was called the “war on terror.” Social-media platforms have become prime distribution channels for propaganda and recruitment for organizations like the Islamic State. The feds think Silicon Valley should do more; the tech companies are fearful of being seen as collaborating with Washington in a post-Snowden environment.

Students of history might take note that it’s rare to beat the U.S. government, which knows a thing or two about defending its turf. Still, several issues are at play. Social media is one. Another that may present common ground is the government’s desire to tap the Valley’s expertise in developing terrorism-fighting technology.

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Reuters reported Thursday that encryption is not on the agenda for Friday’s meeting. If so, it could be that Washington understands an intramural quarrel is brewing over encryption and the use of customer data. The battle lines there find Apple and Microsoft (MSFT), privacy purists who make their money selling hardware to consumers and software to businesses, respectively, on one side. On the other are Google (GOOG) and Amazon (AMZN), whose businesses are built on mining their customers’ data in the name of serving them up valuable information.

The very notion of a powerful delegation of federal political appointees descending on Silicon Valley must be jarring for an industry built on leave-us-alone libertarian political ideals. Technology types at times come off as woefully ignorant of how much they benefit from the largesse and firm hand of the U.S. government. Representatives of their government undoubtedly plan to remind them on Friday.