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Trump’s war on tech has already collapsed

·Senior Columnist
·6 min read
In this article:
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Donald Trump has launched a new broadside against Big Tech, with a fresh lawsuit claiming Facebook, Twitter and Google illegally banned him from their platforms. Trumpers might cheer, but the former president already has a losing record in his war against tech, and it’s likely to get worse.

During the second half of his presidency, Trump turned verbal assaults against enemies in tech into legal affronts backed by the power of the executive branch. Though dubious, those legal efforts could have harmed platforms used by tens of millions of Americans had Trump won reelection and tightened the screws further.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Former President Donald Trump speaks at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Instead, Trump lost, and one after another, his salvos against the tech industry have landed sadly astray. The first misfire came last December, when a judge ruled against the Trump administration in its bid to shut down TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned video-sharing app. In 2020, Trump claimed TikTok was a national security threat because it could help the Chinese government get personal data on more than 100 million Americans. Despite any evidence of a problem, Trump signed an executive order last year to ban the app in the United States unless an American company bought it. Trump may have been seeking leverage in his trade war with China, with billions in new tariffs on Chinese imports failing to produce decisive concessions Trump could claim as a major victory. Or, Trump may have been steamed that teenage TikTok users pranked him by reserving thousands of tickets to a June rally and not showing up.

TikTok users and the company itself filed separate lawsuits to stop Trump’s order. A judge sided with users last October, saying the national-security threat was hypothetical. Then in December—when a distracted Trump was busy fulminating against his 2020 election loss—another judge ruled Trump has exceeded his authority. Last month, President Biden repealed Trump’s order, ending the ordeal.

INDIA - 2021/06/09: In this photo illustration, Tiktok logos seen displayed on an Android Tablet Phone along with United States flag in the background. (Photo Illustration by Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
INDIA - 2021/06/09: In this photo illustration, Tiktok logos seen displayed on an Android Tablet Phone along with United States flag in the background. (Photo Illustration by Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Personal grievance may have suffused the Trump administration’s 2019 decision to award a $10 billion Pentagon data management contract to Microsoft rather than the apparent front-runner, Amazon. For years, Trump has nursed a nasty grudge against Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who independently owns the Washington Post—which, like most other news outlets, has repeatedly called out Trump’s lies. Trump tried to retaliate against several entities with ties to the company Bezos founded, including the US Postal Service, an Amazon delivery partner. Trump had publicly suggested that even though Amazon was a pioneer in cloud computing, another company might be more deserving of the Pentagon's so-called Jedi project. So it seemed suspicious when Microsoft got the contract in 2019.

Amazon sued, claiming Trump had unduly influenced the decision. Then on July 6, the Pentagon preempted the suit by canceling the Microsoft deal and saying it would run the competition all over again, without the taint of Trump’s personal involvement. The final outcome could include more than one contractor, which is common when the Pentagon wants to spread risk.

The Section 230 question

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies remotely during a hearing to discuss reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act with big tech companies on October 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. - US senators and tech CEOs girded for a clash Wednesday over a law making online services immune from liability for third-party content at a hearing set to debate Silicon Valley's handling of social media. (Photo by Greg Nash / POOL / AFP) (Photo by GREG NASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies remotely during a hearing to discuss reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act with big tech companies on October 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by GREG NASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Trump foreshadowed his recent lawsuit last May with an executive order meant to curtail online platforms' right to publish content created by their users, which is considered a fundamental legal protection enabling the modern Internet. Trump's order came after Twitter began to label Trump's own tweets as false or misleading, and in some cases appended fact-checking details. Trump's effort to tighten Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, as it is known, may not have survived legal challenges—but it didn't matter because Biden repealed that order in May.

Trump also claimed vindication for his “America First” strategy when Taiwanese tech firm Foxconn said it would invest $10 billion in a Wisconsin LCD plant that would employ 13,000 Americans. “This is as great as it is anywhere in the world," Trump said at the 2018 groundbreaking ceremony. "America is open for business more than it has ever been." It was just the beginning, he said, of an influx of manufacturing jobs back to the United States. 

America is, in fact, open, but little thanks to Foxconn. Earlier this year, the company scaled back the Wisconsin project by more than 90%, to a $672 million investment that might employ 1,400 Americans. The plan to make LCD displays is dead. Electric vehicles are trendy now, so Foxconn might partner with another company to build those. Wisconsin taxpayers feel burned over millions of dollars in tax breaks meant to lure Foxconn. The number of U.S. manufacturing jobs plateaued at the beginning of 2019, then plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room accompanied by House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., Foxconn CEO and founder Terry Gou, and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 26, 2017. Trump said that electronics giant Foxconn will build a $10 billion factory in Wisconsin that's expected to create 3,000 jobs.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room accompanied by House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., Foxconn CEO and founder Terry Gou, and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 26, 2017. Trump said that electronics giant Foxconn will build a $10 billion factory in Wisconsin that's expected to create 3,000 jobs.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

A ploy to rally supporters

The Trump suit against Google, Facebook and Twitter may dissolve in similar fashion. Many legal experts have trashed the suit, which Trump brought because those platforms, including Google’s YouTube, banned Trump following his incitement of the protesters who ended up rioting at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Private-sector companies have the clear right to ban any contributor from platforms they own, and they have no obligation to publish anybody’s views. The lawsuit is more of a publicity stunt meant to stoke Trump supporters and aid with fundraising by giving Trump yet another villain to protect the world against.

Not every Trump policy was destined to flop. President Biden has kept the Trump tariffs on Chinese imports in place, perhaps as leverage to use in upcoming negotiations on trade, climate policy or human rights. Biden is also continuing Trump’s planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. And the superficiality of Trump’s social-media lawsuit comes amid legitimate concerns about the power of America’s tech giants. Yet Trump’s pursuit of quixotic vengeance tarnished policy pursuits that may have been legitimate. It still does.

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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