Commentary

Tech Leaders Convening At The White House To Jaw About IT

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, IBM’s Ginni Rometty, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Microsoft’s Satya Nardella are expected to be among the high-profile tech leaders gathered around President Donald Trump today as he convenes the first meeting of the American Technology Council at the White House. The ATC is an initiative of the Office of American Innovation, which was created by an executive order in March and is led by Trump senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. 

“Expected” is a loaded word.

“Many of the companies have refused to confirm their attendance publicly, in a sign of how sensitive their dealings with the Trump administration have become in a liberal Silicon Valley that loathes his policies on issues like immigration and climate change,” writes Steven Overly for Politico.

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“It’s just the newest example of a dynamic that has ensnared some of the industry’s leading figures. In February, embattled Uber CEO Travis Kalanick backed away from a Trump economic council after critics of the president’s travel ban announced a boycott of the company. More recently, Tesla CEO Elon Musk quit his role as a White House business adviser after Trump abandoned the Paris climate accord,” Overly continues.

But while neither Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg nor COO Sheryl Sandberg is expected to be at the meeting, most of the invited leaders are apparently attending despite their policy differences — if primarily out of self-interest.

“Silicon Valley's relationship with Trump is complicated. The industry’s employees aren't usually happy when their CEOs engage with the president. But a combination of policy realities (tech would love a good deal on tax reform, for example) and a fear of being out of the loop on other discussions (such as modernizing federal IT systems) keeps executives coming back to the table,” David McCabe points out for Axios. “Tech giants also know a powerful White House contingent has concerns about Silicon Valley's increasing wealth and control over consumers' data, so they need to maintain a dialogue.”

The umbrella issue for the daylong conference is the federal governments antiquated IT systems.

“Tech leaders were given a 10-page agenda to review in advance of the meeting. They’ll discuss how to use technology to modernize government services; how to cut government cost by making government infrastructure more efficient; how to make government technology more secure against cyber attacks; and, of course, immigration,” reports Issie Lapowsky for Wired.

“Much like his predecessors in the White House, Trump and his team believe that Washington, D.C., has been too slow to adapt to the digital age,” Tony Romm writes for Recode. “They fret that the lumbering federal bureaucracy is hamstrung by outmoded technology, often in such troubling ways that veterans have a hard time obtaining their medical records. And they want federal agencies to start taking advantage of new tools, including artificial intelligence, to address lingering ills, like fraudulent government spending.”

Indeed, “We have a computer system in this country that’s 40 years old, so when you hear we are hacked … we are like easy targets,” Trump himself said after a meeting with business leaders in April, adding that “the cost of maintaining our computers is a number that is so high, it’s not even a believable number,” Matthew Kazin reports for FOXBusiness.

“Trump signed an executive order in May in an effort to strengthen the cybersecurity of the nation’s aging federal networks and critical infrastructure. One area of focus would be moving to more secure services like the cloud,” Kazin continues.

Just how much influence the big guns gathering today will have remains to be seen.

“Corporate leaders are learning about the limits of their clout. Hopes for an overhaul of the corporate-tax code this year are fading, some executives and corporate lobbyists say, as the White House and lawmakers struggle to reach consensus on a plan that could get through Congress. Mr. Trump’s move to quit the Paris climate accord has been a stinging lesson for some that White House face time doesn’t always translate into influence,” Vanessa Fuhrmans and Peter Nicholas write for the Wall Street Journal.

But, they report, White House officials say they have received an enthusiastic response from executives who see the overall effort to improve government efficiency as an apolitical goal.”

“Modernizing government services is not politicized,” Liddell tells them.

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