Trump says he'll look at Peter Thiel's accusation that Google is committing treason

By Irina Ivanova

/ MoneyWatch

President Donald Trump on Tuesday pledged to scrutinize search engine Google after a prominent supporter, noted venture capitalist Peter Thiel, recently accused the internet company of "seemingly treasonous" activity.

Thiel, one of Silicon Valley's best-known investors, spoke at the National Conservatism Conference on Sunday, where he called for law enforcement officials to examine Google's activity in China. Thiel suggested that a Google artificial intelligence project known as DeepMind had been "infiltrated" by foreign intelligence operatives.

He also characterized the company's efforts to develop a censored search engine for China, while declining to renew a contract with the U.S. government, as "seemingly treasonous." Thiel called for the FBI and CIA to investigate Google "in a not excessively gentle manner," according to Axios.

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Early Tuesday, Mr. Trump tweeted that the administration would "take a look" at the accusations. He called Thiel "a great and brilliant guy who knows this subject better than anyone!"

Google dismissed the charge that it colludes with China. "As we have said before, we do not work with the Chinese military," a spokesperson said in an email.

“Billionaire Tech Investor Peter Thiel believes Google should be investigated for treason. He accuses Google of working with the Chinese Government.” @foxandfriends A great and brilliant guy who knows this subject better than anyone! The Trump Administration will take a look!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2019

Thiel, perhaps Mr. Trump's most vocal supporter in Silicon Valley, has interests in several companies that compete with Google. Those including Facebook, where he sits on the board of directors, and Palantir, a security company he co-founded that holds contracts with at least 12 divisions of the federal government as well as local law enforcement entities.

"These comments speak to the growing frustration from many within the Trump circle towards Big Tech, with Google front and center," Daniel Ives, a managing director at Wedbush Securities, said by email. "This is becoming a hot-button issue within the Beltway, and these large tech stalwarts now have a bright spotlight on every move they make."

Google, under pressure from employees, declined to renew a contract with the Pentagon last year over concerns about equipping drones with AI capabilities. After Google rejected the defense work, Palantir secured an $800 million contract with the Army (Palantir CEO Alex Karp shares his co-founder's views on tech companies that choose not to support U.S. military needs.)

Treason, really?

Even under Mr. Trump's nationalist economic agenda, a charge that Google is acting treasonously is unlikely to stick. Treason—the only crime laid out in the U.S. Constitution—is narrowly defined as giving "aid and comfort" to U.S. enemies. Enemies, in turn, are defined as countries against which Congress has declared war, although some modern scholars are pushing to include cyberwarfare in that definition.

"There's a difference between competitors and enemies," Stephen Vladeck, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas School of Law, told CBS MoneyWatch.

Darrell West, founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation, agreed. "I thought they were ridiculous comments," he said, alluding to Thiel's remarks.

"Google has been in some conversations to get into China in the search business, and Google has been reluctant to build defense-related AI applications. … Either one of those arguments are completely defensible on business grounds."

Feds investigating major tech companies for antitrust violations

"Thiel himself has business interests in this area," West added. The venture capitalist has reportedly explored investing in Chinese startups and has put money New Zealand's tech sector—activity that he used to successfully acquire citizenship in New Zealand in 2011. Thiel now owns a 470-acre estate in the country, which he has called "utopia."

The reason the Constitution defines treason so narrowly is because in England, "it was abused—it was exactly this," Vladeck said. "The king used treason as a method of punishing political enemies. Treason was whatever the king said it was."

Big Tech in the crosshairs

Federal regulators are currently investigating the "big four" tech companies—Facebook, Amazon and Apple, in addition to Google—for potential antitrust activities, and recent reports indicate that Google is among the top targets.

Mr. Trump's tweet come days after the White House hosted a "social media summit" that excluded Google, Twitter and Facebook, and where the president singled out far-right provocateur James O'Keefe for praise. O'Keefe, whose organization tried to plant a false story in the Washington Post in 2017, is now working on what he calls an "exposé" about Google's alleged efforts to prevent Mr. Trump from being reelected next year.

Hours after Thiel's comments were reported, Fox Business reporter Charlie Gasparino said on Twitter that the White House is preparing a crackdown on Google for supposedly disadvantaging conservatives in search results.

First published on July 16, 2019 / 10:59 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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