Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor and Facebook board member, called on US intelligence to investigate Google over what he called “seemingly treasonous” behavior at the National Conservatism Conference on Sunday. From stage, he proposed various questions for the company, such as whether its Manhattan Project for AI had been “infiltrated” by foreign intelligence agencies, and whether Google leadership may be in bed with the Chinese government. “These are questions that 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.”
The allegations came as Google and other tech companies are facing significant criticism from across the political spectrum, including from Donald Trump and his allies. (“Silicon Valley is getting a little bit of a bad conscience,” Thiel said. ) In March, the president accused Google of helping the Chinese military, suggesting the company also worked to boost Hillary Clinton in 2016. “Google is helping China and their military, but not the US,” Trump tweeted. “Terrible!” That seemed to be backed up by his Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Joseph Dunford, who told Congress that same month that Google’s work in China “is indirectly benefiting” China’s military. “We watch with great concern when industry partners work in China knowing that there is that indirect benefit,” Dunford said in a March testimony on Capitol Hill. “Frankly, ‘indirect’ may not be a full characterization of the way it really is. It is more of a direct benefit to the Chinese military.”
Google denied the claims at the time, with a spokesperson saying that “we are not working with the Chinese military. We are working with the U.S. government, including the Department of Defense, in many areas including cybersecurity, recruiting and healthcare.” Trump appeared temporarily satisfied, too, after meeting with Google C.E.O. Sundar Pichai weeks later. “He stated strongly that he is totally committed to the U.S. Military, not the Chinese Military,” Trump tweeted. “Also discussed political fairness and various things that [Google] can do for our Country. Meeting ended very well!”
But that goodwill didn’t last long. Trump has intensified his criticism of Silicon Valley, which he believes is “sooo on the side of the Radical Left Democrats,” holding a profoundly weird, highly unnecessary summit with right-wing trolls on Thursday to gripe about what he alleged was the tech industry’s censorship of conservative voices on social media. “A lot of bad things are happening,” Trump said in a rambling speech praising some of the most toxic far-right internet personalities, including Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe, whose undercover “investigation,” seemingly captured a Google executive discussing the company “stopping the next Trump situation.” Eric Trump tweeted the video, saying it showed the “corruption of big tech” and that “[Google] should be absolutely ashamed,” earning a retweet from his old man. (The Google executive has claimed she was referring to preventing foreign election interference, like the kind Russia committed in 2016, in next year’s presidential election.)
Other speakers at the conference are likewise expected to scrutinize big tech—including Facebook, which unsurprisingly went unmentioned in Thiel’s broadside. Google, Facebook, and Twitter have all been under heavy pressure in recent months, both from the right and from Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, who have called for the big four tech companies to be broken up. Google in particular has faced scrutiny for its relationship with China, including over its censored search engine developed for use there. Still, the phrase “treason” has a uniquely Trumpian ring to it. And Thiel’s accusations could give the right a concerted point around which to rally.