On Tuesday evening, Palantir cofounder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel joined former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former National Security Agency advisor Robert C. O’Brien in a virtual roundtable organized by the Richard Nixon Foundation, to discuss Big Tech’s problematic ties with China.
Thiel, who calls himself a tech contrarian and got his start in Silicon Valley as a PayPal cofounder, has openly criticized Alphabet’s artificial intelligence work in China and Apple’s reliance on the country for its overall supply chain. Pressed on what legislators can do to stop the “infiltration” of Chinese influence in American technology companies, Thiel offered one piece of advice: keep applying pressure on tech companies. “You need to call people out on that relentlessly,” Thiel said.
A Facebook board member since 2005, Thiel also discussed how the social network’s employee base made it more difficult for the company to take a tough stance against China. Thiel brought up the debates among Facebook employees during Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests in 2020 as an example for how internal politics prevented Facebook from taking a more anti-China bent.
“The employees from Hong Kong were all in favor of the protests and free speech, but there were more employees at Facebook who are born in China,” Thiel said. “The Chinese nationals actually said it was just Western arrogance and shouldn’t be taking Hong Kong’s side and things like that. The rest of the employees at Facebook, you know, sort of stayed out of it, but the internal debate felt like people were more actually anti-Hong Kong than pro-Hong Kong.”
Thiel and Pompeo also discussed whether Chinese foreign exchange students should be allowed to study in the United States. “We are in fact an open country, [and] I think that makes it riskier to have those students study here because the capacity for that information to end up in places that benefits the Chinese communist parties model — its ideology — is pretty significant,” said Pompeo.
Thiel agreed, saying Pompeo was “basically right,” and cited universities’ potential complicity with Chinese wealthy donors as another issue. “Are they getting money from Chinese funding? There’s probably been a lot of abuse on this in various ways,” he said without elaborating.
Under the Trump administration, Pompeo served as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency for one year before becoming the Secretary of State from 2018 to 2021. Thiel, meanwhile, was an anomaly in Silicon Valley when he endorsed Trump and donated to his 2016 presidential election campaign (he did not donate to his re-election efforts in 2020).
While the Trump presidency was barely discussed in the hour and a half long discussion, Christian Whiton, senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest, asked Thiel for his views on the current regulation of social media platforms, and whether those platforms’ censorship of President Donald Trump could and should be limited.
In January, two days after a mob of rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol to protest the Joe Biden being certified by Congress as the new U.S. President, Twitter permanently banned President Trump from its website, saying it was “due to the risk of [Trump’s] further incitement of violence.” Facebook and other major social media companies followed suit soon after.
While Whiton named Twitter “and other companies like it” as the focus of the question, it was not lost on Thiel that Facebook was squarely in that class.
“I’m on Facebook’s board so I have to be careful with what I say here, but the de-platforming [of] President Trump two or three months ago was really quite extraordinary,” Thiel said. “When you have [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel and [President] Obrador from Mexico saying that the tech platforms have been too anti-Trump, too mean to Mr. Trump, that tells you that you’ve really overreached.”
Merkel expressed in January that she considered the Twitter ban as “problematic.” President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico, meanwhile, also reprimanded the social media bans. “Yes, social media should not be used to incite violence and all that, but this cannot be used as pretext to suspend freedom of expression,” Lopez Obrador reportedly said.