Peter Thiel, one of President Donald Trump’s top Silicon Valley supporters and donors, took aim at Google Inc. and the high-tech industry over the companies’ focus on global markets while brushing aside U.S. interests.
He singled out Google for agreeing to work closely with China, trying to get its search engine back into the Chinese market, while deciding to let lapse a U.S. defense department contract that gave the military access to its artificial intelligence tools.
Thiel suggested the actions were “seemingly treasonous," as he delivered the opening speech Sunday at the National Conservatism conference in Washington. He asked whether Google parent Alphabet Inc.’s AI research program or senior management had been “infiltrated" by foreign intelligence agencies. “These questions need to be asked by the FBI and the CIA," Thiel said, “And I’d like them to be asked in a not excessively gentle manner."
Thiel was a featured speaker at the gathering, where many of the attendees are enthusiastic supporters of Trump. Thiel’s endorsement of the New York developer at the 2016 Republican National Convention -- and donation of $1.25 million -- helped give Trump a measure of Silicon Valley credibility at the time.
Thiel also praised Trump on Sunday for his trade efforts in China, which he termed a “signature achievement" of the administration, along with the White House negotiations with North Korea.
Thiel didn’t endorse calls by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 candidate to replace Trump, and others to break up tech giants like Google and Facebook Inc., where he is a director. He said Warren’s success raising money from Google employees was evidence of an underlying problem.
“Silicon Valley," he said, “is getting a little bit of a bad conscience."
Facebook faces a record $5 billion settlement with the U.S. to end a privacy case involving Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm hired by Trump’s campaign that got user data from a researcher who created a personality quiz app on Facebook’s social network. Facebook had had a series of mishaps that compromised users’ data.
Thiel spoke at the first iteration of a Washington conference conceived as a look at the importance of nationalism. Speeches in coming days will include “The Nationalist Awakening" and “American Greatness and Immigration: the Case for Low and Slow." John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, will also speak.
“We see nationalism as integral to the rise of conservatism," said Yoram Hazony, an Israeli philosopher and the chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, which organized the event.
Though the program for the 2 1/2 day conference isn’t focused on tech, Hazony said he expects that risks posed by companies like Google and Facebook will be a common theme.
The final featured speaker, on Tuesday, is Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican who’s proposed reforming Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which allows big tech companies to avoid being held liable for content posted on their platforms.
“I think Facebook and Google are a good examples of what is it we’re talking about," Hizony said in an interview on Sunday. “These are spectacularly impressive entrepreneurs, but you need to ask the question if Americans are better off with [Google and Facebook] singlehandedly determining what should be censored?"