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Three Touchy Questions for Tech Leaders to Ask Trump

The incoming administration will inherit contentious policy debates about cybersecurity, privacy, and Internet regulation.
December 13, 2016

Few in the technology sector besides Peter Thiel had much love for Donald Trump during the presidential campaign. But now that Trump is president-elect, executives from most of the high-profile U.S. tech firms have cleared room in their schedules on Wednesday to take a meeting with him and his transition team at Trump Tower.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Alphabet CEO Larry Page, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos are all expected to be there, along with the CEOs of Microsoft, IBM, Intel, and others.

The meeting’s agenda is not public, and the conversation could easily span a wide range of subjects, from immigration to taxes to drones. But Trump himself has thus far been vague or even contradictory about the following controversial policy topics, and many of the meeting’s attendees likely have the same questions about where he really stands.

Trump’s cybersecurity plans: More details, please!

The president-elect said he would make cybersecurity a priority immediately, so it makes sense to start there. Surely every executive attending this meeting wants to know: what exactly will Trump’s administration do to respond to increasing cyber threats? In a recent video, Trump said that in his first 100 days, he’d ask the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to “develop a comprehensive plan to protect vital infrastructure from cyberattacks.”

But this problem is extremely complicated, and what the government does will affect all things connected, from webcams to electric cars. Is Trump referring strictly to attacks from foreign adversaries? What about attacks from hackers not affiliated with other governments? How will the administration address the growing risks posed by poorly secured Internet of things devices? Should device manufacturers or Internet service providers expect cybersecurity-specific regulations? How should consumers expect their online experience to change, if at all?

Encryption: Does the Trump administration favor banning it?

Apple CEO Tim Cook won’t be the only one in the room wondering how exactly the Trump team views the issue of encryption. Congress considered legislation this year that would have required companies to let law enforcement access encrypted data. The bill faltered for lack of support from the White House and others, but the debate is sure to pick up again next year. Trump called for a boycott of Apple after it refused to grant the FBI access to encrypted data on an iPhone during an investigation of a December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. Meanwhile, Representative Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nomination to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, has said that a mandate for companies that make devices and online communications services to allow the government “backdoor” access to encrypted data would “do little good.”

Pompeo, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, has also previously said that the use of “strong encryption in personal communications may itself be a red flag.” Does the president-elect agree?

Net neutrality: Are the FCC’s Open Internet rules on their way out? And if so, what does that mean?

The executives in the room whose companies are vying for a share of the streaming video market will likely bring up the Federal Communications Commission’s “Open Internet” rules. Passed in 2015, the rules are meant to protect “net neutrality” by banning the blocking or throttling legal Internet traffic, outlawing business arrangements in which companies pay a premium to have their traffic prioritized, and giving the FCC the authority to police other business practices it deems harmful to competition.

President-elect Trump’s transition team includes critics of the rules. Is it fair then for companies to presume that those rules will be rolled back? Will they then be replaced with more Republican-friendly net neutrality rules, either via the new FCC or through Congress?

There is even a timely example to discuss in this case. A new product from AT&T, DirecTV Now, allows users to pay $35 per month and stream 100 channels from DirecTV (which AT&T owns) over the cellular network without it counting toward their data caps. Products like this could attract cord cutters to buy cable-like packages again, perhaps instead of paying for other services like Hulu or Netflix. But Obama’s FCC is concerned that DirecTV Now violates net neutrality rules. Trump’s FCC won’t see it that way, correct?

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