The Changing Face of Industry and Policy Concerns

President Obama met today with 15 top Silicon Valley executives to discuss NSA spying, surveillance reform and the bungled HealthCare.gov website.Not long ago, when the President of the United States sat down with industry leaders, he met with steel magnates, carmakers and machine tool manufacturers. Today, President Obama huddled with the heads of Yahoo, Google and Twitter. 

That says volumes about the changing face of "industry" in America, not to mention the profile of the nation's most pressing issues.

Steel, car and machine tool tycoons rode into Washington, DC to talk about foreign competition, excessive regulation and the minimum wage. The 15 high tech CEOs who met with Obama came to discuss the bungled HealthCare.gov website and their concerns about excessive government data-mining, sometimes through unsuspected backdoors into their data warehouses. 

Many captains of industry have identified with the Republican Party. This new breed of corporate leader tends to side with the Democrats and have especially close ties to Obama. The Sunlight Foundation says employees at the 15 companies represented at today's meeting contributed an average of $356,000 per company to Obama's campaign.

Despite the political comity between Internet giants and the President, they find themselves in a strained position over the government's performance in the digital world. They see the HealthCare.gov website fiasco as a major stumbling block to Obama's leadership on other major policy aspirations they share. And they find government spies in their data closets disconcerting.

Arguably, the topics at today's presidential parlay affect more Americans than those of yesteryear involving tariffs and government rule-making. The implementation of Obamacare, including introduction of health care exchanges, will have a broad impact across the nation's economy. And the thought of government snoops sifting through emails, phone records and people's digital footprints has a large segment of the American public on edge.

For their part, technology leaders encouraged Obama to move ahead with government surveillance reform. They may have been heartened by a federal court judge ruling that the extent of federal eavesdropping may be unconstitutional. But they have been unnerved by Obama's statement of support for current practices. 

They also are developing an economic rash as they worry about the business reaction in a number of foreign countries that have been the apparent target of U.S. snooping such as Germany and Brazil. An open letter from at-large U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden said of U.S. spy operations, "These programs were never about terrorism. They're about economic spying, social control and diplomatic manipulation. They're about power."

One thing is clear, the digital giants don't appear to be as compliant with federal snooping requests as their telecommunications cousins appear to have been. As they return to Silicon Valley, these executives will have to wait and see how the Obama administration responds, which will be outlined in a January presidential speech.