Silicon Valley’s Dance With Despots

(Bloomberg) -- Silicon Valley tech giants have historically devised clever ways to do business with authoritarian regimes while trying to remain true to their principles and to the broad mission to make the world a better place.

Before Google indignantly left China in 2010, for example, the search engine ran explicit notices when material was censored—surely enlightening an otherwise oblivious populace. And when Uber took a $3.5 billion investment from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, it argued that its service offered new transportation options for women in the kingdom (who at the time didn’t have the right to drive) and a safe way to get to their jobs.

Now those kinds of fragile rationalizations are collapsing, en masse. The latest blow has been delivered by the disappearance and alleged brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the government of Saudi Arabia.

The tech community not only bear-hugged the government of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman but did it with characteristic confidence that its influence would be a force for good. Uber initiated the uncomfortable relationship between tech and the Saudis in 2016. Then startups like WeWork Cos. and Slack Technologies Inc. followed, tapping the country’s prodigious oil capital in the belief that they were helping Prince Mohammed with his self-professed goal to wean the kingdom from its dependence on fossil fuels.

There are few unicorns that aren’t touched by Saudi influence. The Saudi Public Investment Fund, chaired by the crown prince, is the primary sponsor of SoftBank Group Corp.'s Vision Fund and is preparing to invest another $45 billion in Masayoshi Son’s second mega tech fund, as we reported earlier this month. Now in the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance, tech luminaries, public figures and news organizations (including Bloomberg LP) are scampering to pull out of a conference called the Saudi Future Investment Initiative, to be held in Riyadh later this month.

Big tech had good reasons—many billions of them—to convince itself that it could make Saudi Arabia more humane. But Khashoggi’s apparent murder has destroyed that logic. Similar thinking also appears to be back at work in China, where Google had been secretly preparing to relaunch its search service. According to a series of revealing stories in the Intercept, a Google effort called Project Dragonfly would filter out politically sensitive search results and link user’s activity to their cell phones, allowing the Chinese government to monitor them.

Why would Google go back to China? “We are talking about the next billion users,” Google search chief Ben Gomes said to employees, according to a leaked transcript of a talk from July. Despite increasing online censorship and repression in China by the regime of President Xi Jingping, Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai reportedly told employees in an all-hands meeting, “I genuinely do believe we have a positive impact when we engage around the world, and I don’t see any reason why that would be different in China.”

In the age of Trump, with sovereign power asserting itself over borderless technology platforms, and authoritarianism on the march around the world, it’s easy to be cynical about these kind of dubious compromises.

But there is a glimmer of hope. An unexpected counterbalance to the ethical flexibility of tech CEOs has been the newfound moral clarity of their employees. Googlers, for example, pressured the company not to renew its Maven AI contract with the military, and a few longtime engineers have quit over Dragonfly. Last week, the objections of Google’s rank and file appeared to be one factor that led the company to withdraw from the Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI cloud computing contract, because it “couldn't be assured that it would align with our AI principles,” as the company said in a statement.

If the Saudi government is conclusively implicated in the murder of Khashoggi, you would think that the employees of Uber, Slack and other SoftBank-funded companies will have something to say about it.

And here’s what you need to know in global technology news

Facebook said hackers stole detailed personal information on 14 million people. Data included search results, recent locations and hometowns. For another 15 million people, cyberthieves accessed name and contact information.

Salesforce’s CEO engaged in a tweet fight with Twitter’s chief over local homelessness. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter and Square, voiced opposition to a proposed corporate tax to help get people off the streets of San Francisco. That prompted Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, who supports the ballot initiative even though his company would be subject to a much bigger tax bill, to go on the offensive.

Extremists are using YouTube less. The spread of jihadi terrorist propaganda on the video site is dramatically declining, according to an intelligence group that tracks online extremism.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.