Last week, news site The Intercept published a thought-provoking survey of nine major tech companies, asking those American corporations whether they would assist a Trump administration in creating a Muslim database.
Granted, this is the kind of hypothetical question that gives PR flacks migraines. Trump, The Intercept acknowledges, has been all over the Rand-McNally on the question of creating a registry. The terrible idea seems to have started with, yes, a hypothetical question posed to the candidate on whether he’d entertain such a policy, and the orange entertainer replying that he would. From there it has gone in and out of style with Trump—a loose strand of coiffed hair blowing this way and that in the Manhattan wind. The potential nomination of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to head the Department of Homeland Security—the man who accidentally leaked plans to create said registry in late November—means that the policy is still firmly on the table. But the truth is we simply don’t know whether Trump will try to build a registry, let alone which American tech companies he may seek to enlist in the effort.
All that acknowledged, however, The Intercept ’s survey is noteworthy, as are the answers provided by two tech companies: Twitter and Microsoft. Twitter provided an unequivocal “No,” citing its policy against participation in any kind of state surveillance. Microsoft was more measured, linking to a company blog post that celebrates diversity as a corporate ethos while also saying that in the age of Trump, “it will remain important for those in government and the tech sector to continue to work together to strike a balance that protects privacy and public safety in what remains a dangerous time.”
One could argue that Twitter has it easy on this particular question. It’s hard to fathom how a social-media company would even go about submitting a bid for creating a government registry, Muslim or otherwise; Microsoft, creator of Excel, not so much. But forget the specifics for a moment—not just the registry but Trump as well—and take these statements in the abstract: From one company, a clear line drawn in the sand over how it will allow its technology to be used by state actors; from another, wiggle room and platitudes. We must get to a place where the former is the norm, not the latter.
That’s not the case as is. To Microsoft’s credit, it was one of the few companies to respond to The Intercept’s query. Most tech companies didn’t bother to, but one need not look far to see where they stand when given a choice between adhering to strict privacy and free-speech policy vs. money: They take the money. The New York Times reported recently that Facebook had developed a censorship tool specially tailored for China, in an effort to break into that lucrative market. Such behavior hardly instills confidence that Silicon Valley and South Lake Union (where Facebook is quickly expanding) is ready to stand in resistance to whatever draconian efforts a Trump presidency may bring.
Civil libertarians—as well as Republicans—could rightly scold much of the left for basically turning off their alarm system on these issues for the past eight years while Obama has been in office. As the Snowden leaks showed, many of the invasive National Security Administration online snooping practices often associated with Bush were kept alive and well by Obama, and in some cases expanded.
But there’s no denying that the worst nightmares of a fully functional techno-tyranny feel a lot more clear and present with an incoming president whose electoral success arose from a willingness to throw all social and political norms out the window, and who openly admires Vladimir Putin’s approach to governance. Obama, for all his flaws, at least had to act like he was following through with some civil-libertarian campaign rhetoric; with Trump, we are left in a position of hoping that he breaks his promises. By making very clear what they will and won’t take part in, Seattle’s tech companies can play an outsized role in ensuring he does break those promises, whether he wants to or not.