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5 ways Silicon Valley is taking on politics

From saving encryption to running for office, technologists are making policy.

By Jimmy Nicholls

Industrial revolutions do not just make people money, they also place political influence into the hands of whichever businessmen are savvy enough to take advantage.

In the past this has included financiers and oil barons, but lately it has been the IT Pros whose stature has risen, not only scooping up billions of dollars in profits but fundamentally altering how people live.

With all this heft Silicon Valley has grown increasingly confident in weighing in on political decisions, both on behalf of themselves and their customers. This is how some in the Bay Area are changing politics.

1. Discrimination

Diversity is a closely guarded notion in Silicon Valley, despite the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the tech sector and the dubious strength of the business case for it.

As such the recent Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is designed to allow businesses the right to refuse service on religious grounds in certain states, provoked an uproar in technology, the religious fervour of the industry being reserved largely for the material.

Most prominent among the critics was Apple chief executive Tim Cook. "Around the world, we strive to treat every customer the same," he said. "Regardless of where they come from, how they worship or who they love."

2. Encryption

Ever since cybersecurity boffins started encrypting communications the US government has sought to control what they release, often imposing strict export controls on the tools.

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In the wake of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks that outlined the extent of Anglo-American snooping capabilities such a position became much harder to maintain, and various interventions from politicians and police have caused outrage in the valley.

Responding to plans from tech firms to encrypt data by default, James Comey, director of the FBI, said: "What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law." Not everyone in Silicon Valley agrees.

3. Free Speech

There is no dispute that search engines have changed how people access information, and for many Google is an important gateway to the Internet.

Such influence was brought to the fore in a court case in Europe last year, which resulted in the European Court of Justice ruling that citizens of the EU had the "right to be forgotten", and thus could request that disobliging search engine results be censored, even if the reports linked to were accurate.

Since then Google has resisted attempts to ensure its services are censored across the globe, much to the chagrin of privacy campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the EU Commission.

4. Work

Automation is perhaps the defining goal of the IT industry, with each generation of computing trying to outpace humans in terms of speed and accuracy in repetitive tasks.

The problem is that the exponential gains of technology are stoking fears that many people will be permanently put out of more complex work, one obvious candidate being transport workers whose roles could be taken by self-driving cars currently in production by Google and much of the motor industry.

In response the great and the good of tech are warning of the impending revolution in work, and perhaps in life itself. Only this year Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak told the Australian Financial Review that: "Computers are going to take over from humans, no question."

5. Government

As the fortunes of Silicon Valley have grown brighter the barriers between the industry and the political establishment in Washington DC have grown ever more porous.

Among the most senior politicians to become involved in technology was former US foreign secretary Condoleezza Rice, whose appointment to cloud storage firm Dropbox’s board was widely opposed, with many complaining of her past involvement in government snooping.

The direction of traffic is not only one-way, with techies such as HP chief executive Meg Whitman running for governor of California in 2010, and more recently the former HP chief Carly Fiorina announcing her likely candidacy for the US presidency.

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