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The Tech Industry Has a Responsibility to Speak Up

January 30, 2017, 2:53 PM UTC

Every once in a while over the past few months I’ve slipped a few words of subtle political commentary into these essays. It’s been pretty tame stuff, frankly, like highlighting the impact of protectionism on Silicon Valley companies and consumers. Without fail, these messages triggered a handful of emails urging me to stick to business commentary.

Business leaders, especially the titans of Silicon Valley, would rather be discussing anything but politics right now. In normal times, corporate leaders always have something to say. Given the size of their companies and their economic power, they arguably have a responsibility to pipe up. In what I assume will be the understatement of your morning, these are not normal times. The Trump administration’s move on Friday to ban refugees and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries presented every major tech company with a challenge: What to say about the policy and how vociferously to say it.

On balance, the corporate responses have been tepid and legalistic, about what you’d expect from giant corporations. Microsoft told its affected employees it would help them with legal advice. Its CEO, Satya Nadella, noting that he is an immigrant, said Microsoft is in favor of immigration. “We will continue to advocate on this important topic.” It was hardly a condemnation of a policy even two prominent Republican senators implied was not consistent with “all that is decent and exceptional about our nation.”

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Others walked a fine line between disapproval and constructive engagement. (Here’s a quick scan of comments by Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai.)

In an email entitled “Standing up for what’s right,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told employees “this ban will impact many innocent people—an issue that I will raise this coming Friday when I go to Washington for President Trump’s first business advisory group meeting.” He name-checked the heads of other companies—Tesla, GM, Pepsi, IBM, and Disney—who serve on the council, as if to provide cover for his decision to participate. And on Sunday, Uber created a $3 million legal defense fund for immigrant drivers. (Uber foe Lyft promptly announced a donation to the ACLU and said it stands “firmly against these actions.”)

This most certainly is not a time of business as usual.