Why it's so hard for Washington to draft tech companies against the Islamic State

By Brian Fung

Photo / iStock
Photo / iStock

Here's the basic problem the government faces when it comes to stopping the Islamic State's Internet propaganda: It needs Silicon Valley's help. But some tech companies - even those that may want to work closely with Washington - find the idea toxic to their business interests.

That's not because they don't believe the organization also known as ISIS is a problem, but because their political priorities don't align in precisely the same ways.

That tension has become most obvious in the back-and-forth over encryption, and whether tech companies should give law enforcement greater access to protected communications.

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As White House officials met Friday with tech leaders in Silicon Valley, partly to discuss that very topic, that dilemma became even more apparent.

All you need to understand it is contained in this one quote below, as reported by my colleagues Greg Miller, Karen DeYoung and Ellen Nakashima:

"Being seen as having the US government force our hands makes others around the world lose confidence in us," said an industry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the discussions. "We understand that the White House [has] a political need to show progress, but we don't necessarily share that political need."

Tech companies appear not to like being bossed around by governments.

Whether it's Google pulling out of China over censorship concerns or Twitter suing Turkey in connection with its ban on airing "terrorist propaganda," or Yahoo fighting US surveillance requests, Silicon Valley has sought to avoid getting too close to governments.

The whole ethos of Silicon Valley depends on the disruption - or transcendence - of traditional power structures. And so when politicians make requests of tech companies, it's that much harder to convince the tech firms to say yes. Bowing to those requests hurts their credibility, and can lead to actual losses in revenue.

That's why simply "asking" for Silicon Valley's help in fighting ISIS is way more complex than it sounds.

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