It should come as no surprise that the country’s most valuable companies are a target of federal investigations by the Trump administration and Congress. But until recently, the tech industry generally have found themselves far more comfortable fighting the government’s battles over immigration and antitrust than others. It was a key reason their cries of independence were so irritating to President Trump.
That appeared to change in September, however, when it became apparent to all that the president could put the technology industry’s independence to the test.
Tech companies will not have it any other way.
That was also clear as the top executives from Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others gathered Friday in Washington for a CEO summit organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
For attendees, the political landscape in which they found themselves on Friday is more reminiscent of a zero-sum, campaign-style battle against the increasing power of the tech industry. Rather than separate as neutral players, they will be accused by political parties of supporting either the capitalist titans or the communitarian heroes of their world. And as the tensions between these conflicting movements have intensified in recent months, the tech executives’ focus has become inevitably on defending their independence.
Their own motives were more intuitive than ideological. While the industry’s profit motives alone may explain why it fights on individual battles to keep its dominance in markets, the desire to avoid future government intrusion is just as compelling as it is for most of its direct competitors in other industries.
That was less clear during the 2016 election, in which both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump cast “Big Tech” as reckless, greedy monopolists beholden to special interests.
The sense of urgency behind executives’ pleas for federal rules to regulate their sector has intensified since Trump took office.
Last year, for example, the president suggested that America would not keep up with economic growth — and thus national security — if it did not fully embrace the Chinese model. At the time, the most visibly tech-centric corporate leaders weren’t spared. In April, Mr. Trump’s then-chief technology officer, Ajit Pai, raised eyebrows when he suggested that the government should regulate the country’s largest internet service providers as utilities.
If the tech industry is to avoid getting called to account over these corporate maneuvers, executives hope to have fewer political enemies.