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Tina Casey headshot

First Facebook, Now Lyft: Peter Thiel Undercuts Tech Companies' CSR Messages

By Tina Casey

It looks like the Donald Trump chickens are finally coming home to roost for Silicon Valley billionaire investor Peter Thiel.

The PayPal co-founder and Facebook board member is unique among the tech set for publicly supporting the Republican president during the campaign season, and that support continued. Barely two weeks into the new president's term, though, that relationship is already undercutting the messages of inclusion and tolerance that Thiel's high-profile affiliates are struggling to articulate.

TriplePundit has been following the Trump-Thiel relationship since last May, when Thiel emerged as an official delegate for Trump on the Republican slate. In addition to their lofty status in the business community, both men appear to share a disdain for journalism and an affinity for the white nationalist movement -- up to and including Trump's recently enacted "Muslim ban."

When is a ban not a ban?

This week TriplePundit contributor Reed Bundy made a compelling case that the corporate social responsibility trend has received a shot of adrenaline as a result of Trump's transparently anti-Muslim ban on entry to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries:
"Despite the negative consequences of Trump’s executive order, we should celebrate the fact that so many giants in the tech industry are suddenly staunch advocates for refugees and our nation’s immigrant population," Bundy wrote on 3p.

"Not long ago, most CEOs opted to stay out of public political debate, usually so as not to upset or ostracize customers who may hold opposing views. Today, as corporate America grapples with the very real possibility of losing some of its most talented employees, the line between corporate social responsibility and political activism is suddenly blurred."

Companies that normally withhold public comment on politically-charged issues have suddenly become change agents, with Starbucks, Google and Lyft among the leaders.

In stark contrast to this burst of activity, earlier this week Peter Thiel issued the following brief statement about the Muslim ban through a spokesperson (as cited by Forbes):

"Peter doesn't support a religious test, and the administration has not imposed one," said Jeremiah Hall, a spokesman for Thiel.

That statement has been widely reported in traditional media as well as in tech-oriented news organizations.

Kara Swisher of Recode issued this particularly scathing observation:

"... Every time you open your mouth, you look more and more like you got played by Steve Bannon and his army of hobgoblins to the detriment of tech leaders whom you somehow got to bow and scrape to the new administration."

Swisher hammered home the point that Thiel has effectively linked Silicon Valley's finest to Trump and his anti-immigrant policies:
"It was bad enough that you pulled off that frightful kumbaya by trooping the most powerful people in Silicon Valley into Trump Tower for what amounted to a photo op for Trump...

"Now worse, you have dragged your pals, like tech icon Elon Musk and Uber’s Travis Kalanick, onto the president’s advisory council, with the promise that engagement with Trump will give them the chance to change his mind."

Trouble for Facebook, Lyft and . . .

Underscoring both Bundy's and Swisher's points, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to defend Thiel's position on the company's board of directors last October, after employees raised alarms over his support of then-candidate Trump.

Even after the Muslim ban, Zuckerberg continued to mince words. In a widely circulated Facebook post, he diluted his concerns over the new policy by expressing optimism that Trump would do the right thing.

Mainstream media is beginning to draw attention to that relationship, and more.

In an article published on Tuesday, CNN's Seth Fiegerman drew attention to Thiel's investment in Lyft. The ride-sharing company has had a "banner week" in terms its response to the Muslim ban, including a $1 million pledge to the American Civil Liberties Union -- which was well-received by fans. However, Fiegerman shines the spotlight on Peter Thiel:

"Less noted, however, is the fact that Peter Thiel is one of Lyft's investors," Fiegerman wrote. "Thiel, the billionaire investor and PayPal (PYPL, Tech30) cofounder, is Trump's top tech advocate and an adviser on his transition team. He also recently appeared to defend the travel ban, despite the many concerns about it in Silicon Valley."

Do read the full article for more detail. Fiegerman cites a laundry list of other companies that have pushed back against the Muslim ban, but share financial or other business ties with Thiel.

In addition to Facebook, that includes Airbnb, Stripe, Artsy, Pando and the startup incubator Y Combinator, where Thiel is a partner.

Y Combinator is particularly noteworthy because venture capitalist Ellen Pao was among the few tech-sector A-listers to speak out publicly -- and with great force -- against Peter Thiel during the campaign season. Thiel's $1.25 million donation to the Trump campaign in the run-up to Election Day prompted her to cut ties between her organization, Project Include, and Y Combinator (emphasis in the original):

"... We are completely outraged to read about Thiel donating $1.25 million to Trump, 'apparently unfazed by the storm around the candidate in the last week following the broadcasting of lewd conversations.'

"While all of us believe in the ideas of free speech and open platforms, we draw a line here. We agree that people shouldn’t be fired for their political views, but this isn't a disagreement on tax policy, this is advocating hatred and violence."

Ironically, Y Combinator -- the force behind Uber and Dropbox, among others -- has just announced that it will provide financial support to the ACLU in its legal battle against the Trump administration on behalf of immigrants.

In a brief blog post on Tuesday, Y Combinator referred to ACLU's successful effort to block enforcement of the Muslim ban (at least partially) last weekend and issued a call for additional support:

"... The ACLU has always been important, but has a particularly important role right now," wrote Y Combinator. "We are honored to be able to help, and we will send some of our team to New York for the rest of the batch to assist.

"The ACLU will have full access to the Y Combinator network and community, and they will present at Demo Day in March.

"We are hopeful that the YC community will join us in supporting this important work. In particular, if you’re an engineer and want to spend some time helping them out, let us know. We’ll keep you updated on opportunities."

So, that could get interesting.

The ACLU-Y Combinator hookup is all the more  interesting because another Peter Thiel connection -- the data mining company Palantir -- is beginning to raise flags about his potential role in the mass identification and deportation of immigrants in the U.S.

Adding to the irony, Thiel himself has immigrant status in two different countries.

He was born in Germany and brought to the U.S. at a very young age, and news has just emerged that he won special permission for citizenship in New Zealand back in 2011, though he didn't come close to meeting the standard five-year residency requirement.

Stay tuned for more.

Image credit: By Kenneth Yeung at PandoMonthly event via flickr.com, creative commons license.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey