For the majority of the general election, Hillary Clinton has maintained an edge over Donald Trump, but her lead in day-to-day polls has winnowed after the FBI’s recent announcement that it was looking into emails sent from another insecure server and generally slimy place — Anthony Weiner’s laptop. However, the FBI announced on Sunday that it will not change its decision in July to not recommend charges against Clinton.
Despite this break for the Democratic candidate, there remains a possibility that Trump could be president. Here the American public stands, suffering over the uncertainty of an imminent moment in American history as if it were a cliff-hanger in an apocalyptic thriller: January 20, 2017 — Inauguration Day.
Hypothetical imaginings of a Trump presidency have ranged from clear-eyed and logical to Cold War–era panic. Sean Hannity has offered to immediately charter President Obama out of the country on Trump’s plane. We will lose a handful of celebrities, including Bryan Cranston and Amber Rose, to Canada. Mexico is apparently working on a contingency plan. Meanwhile, reporters and political scientists continue to tease out hypothetical President Trump approaches to nuclear warfare, immigration, foreign policy, and civil rights.
Though Trump’s two-year, unscripted speaking tour has provided a wealth of material to parse, he has remained frustratingly mum on how he plans to shape America’s digital future. The White House’s relatively novel use of social media over the past eight years has played an important role in how the public sees the American government. And many of our country’s most pressing economic and civil issues will be influenced by tech policy — whether it concerns encryption, cybersecurity, online extremism, or net neutrality. “We’re on the verge of a fundamentally different economy that’s being absolutely transformed by the next wave of technology,” Peter Leyden, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, recently told Politico. “It will have huge ramifications on society. And someone running the goddamn country has to know that.”
Trump has offered few specifics about how he plans to shape America’s digital infrastructure. But based on the behavior of his campaign; interviews with experts, political scientists, and Republican strategists; and the tidbits collected from his speeches and interviews, we can piece together a picture of the internet under President Trump.
Trump and Technology
To understand how Trump might approach technology as a politician, you must first understand how he approaches it as a private citizen. In 2005, the same year that DARPA held its first successful self-driving-car competition, Trump expressed his wariness of email during an interview on The Howard Stern Show: “Half of my friends are under indictment right now because they sent emails to each other about how they’re screwing people,” Trump told Stern. “Email is unbelievable.” A year later he launched a now-defunct travel website titled GoTrump.com, and with it — according to a press release at the time — his “first-ever” email address: “MrTrump@GoTrump.com.” Yet, in 2007, the year the first iPhone debuted, Trump testified in a deposition that he didn’t own a computer, and that his secretary typed letters on his behalf. Six years and an Oculus Rift prototype later, Trump admitted to using email — then the main form of communication for everyone in the modern world — “very rarely.” At a press conference in July, where he discussed Clinton’s email woes, he reinforced his aversion to the tool: “I’m not an email person myself,” he said. Trump also appears to have an aversion to computers. A thoroughly researched Gizmodo post titled “Has Donald Trump Ever Used a Computer?” struggled to find photographic evidence of Trump actually using, let alone touching, one.
Even if computers and email never resonated with Trump, the businessman is indisputably fond of at least one major digital platform: Twitter. Trump joined the network in March 2009 to publicize his book Think Like a Champion. “He seemed very excited about the idea of being able to reach people so directly,” Peter Costanzo, who helped him set up the account as a marketer for the book’s publisher, recently told the Daily Mail. “I think he immediately got it.” Trump’s evolution as a Twitter personality took a few years, but he eventually settled on a strategy best described by my colleague Lindsay Zoladz as “doing it for the likes.” On Trump’s timeline, everything is just a little more bombastic. His opponents are villains worthy of their own ear-wormy adjectives à la “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco,” and “Crooked Hillary.” Criticism in the media isn’t liberal bias, but the worst “pile-on” in American political history. Detractors from his past aren’t simply dishonest. They also have (fictitious) sex tapes.
“He intentionally uses this grandiose language because it fits the need that Twitter has for novelty,” Jose Marichal, a professor of political science at California Lutheran University, recently told me. “He’s been really good at using strong language to crystallize an issue so that his supporters are more likely to be with him. It’s more comprehensible. He makes politics simpler.”
Trump’s current system for sending tweets is as follows: If he’s in his office and he thinks of a tweet, he’ll “shout it out” to his staff, as he explained on CNN in April. On the receiving end of these messages are a handful of people, including his campaign’s press secretary, Hope Hicks, a woman named “Meredith,” or one of the “young ladies,” as he described them, on his office staff. Recently, a data scientist analyzed the sentiments of all of the tweets that came from Trump’s account, dividing those sent via Android (Trump uses a Samsung Galaxy phone), and those sent from an iPhone (as is reportedly widely used by his staff). “We can see that the Android tweets are angrier and more negative, while the iPhone tweets tend to be benign announcements and pictures,” the report concluded. Trump is open about his personal tweeting. “After seven o’clock or so, I will always do it by myself,” he said in the same CNN interview. He reportedly fires off the posts from a chaise longue in his penthouse bedroom suite, in front of a flat-screen TV. In the days leading up to the election, however, his aides have allegedly “wrested control” of the Twitter account from Trump.
President Trump’s Digital Outreach
Should Trump win, a form of this tweeting nook would likely need to be relocated to the White House’s Executive Residence. Since Barack Obama became president, official White House accounts have multiplied on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Flickr, and Medium. Last week, the White House announced that it plans to pass off this digital infrastructure to the next administration. On Inauguration Day, as the president-elect is sworn in, @POTUS’s timeline will be wiped of its past tweets and its login information handed off to staff members in the new administration. (The account’s more than 11 million followers will theoretically remain.) Under a Trump presidency, control of each official White House social media account would likely be handed off to the collection of staff members who now coordinate his campaign’s various social initiatives and aim to mirror his exaggerative language. Some Republican strategists anticipate the @POTUS handle would also be the new home for Trump’s candid stream of consciousness.
“I think that President Trump will continue to be as open on Twitter as he has been,” Vincent Harris, a Republican digital strategist who briefly worked for the Trump campaign, told me. “Whereas President Obama didn’t tweet himself until years into his administration, it’s very clear that Donald Trump’s already engaging with people and that he’s very active in sharing his thoughts.”
Trump’s distrust of the media — as demonstrated by his tendency to insult reporters and outlets and withhold access for publications like The Washington Post and BuzzFeed News — may also inform the way he uses these newly adopted online accounts, each with its own substantial audience. Rather than grant an interview to a major news network, he might instead give one to a Trump-created “news show” airing on Facebook Live.
“The media will probably be very anti-Trump from day one,” Harris said. “So I think that the Trump White House pushing their policy agenda through digital means, through video, and through direct appeal from Donald Trump, will be incredibly powerful.”
Just as President Lyndon B. Johnson used his 6-foot, 3-inch height to intimidate his opponents in meetings, Trump could also use his considerable influence on social media to pressure members of Congress. His digital operation estimates that, by Election Day, it will have collected between 12 million and 14 million email addresses, according to Bloomberg. It will have also logged the contact information and credit card numbers for about 2.5 million donors. Tapping into his online fan base could be an essential strategy for pushing forward legislation.
“This is like a 21st-century bully pulpit,” Marichal told me. “If you get a segment of an audience that’s so fired up that they’re going to let members of Congress know how displeased they are, it could be effective.”
Trump’s mastery of social media would likely play a big part in his role as president, but he has shown little understanding of the infrastructure behind the online tools that have extended his reach — especially encryption. In mid-February, just a few days after Trump won the New Hampshire Republican primary, a legal feud broke out between the FBI and Apple over access to the encrypted information on the iPhone that belonged to Syed Farook, one of the two shooters who killed 14 people during a holiday party in San Bernardino, California. The showdown ended abruptly when the FBI discovered an expensive alternative way to break into Farook’s phone. But neither the legal nor philosophical issues at the center of the debate — which pitted national security interests against consumers’ right to privacy — were settled.
Trump’s reaction at the time placed him squarely in the corner of the FBI, and alienated one of America’s most successful tech companies. “I agree 100 percent with the courts,” Trump said in an interview with Fox & Friends. “In that case, we should open it up. I think security, overall … To think that Apple won’t allow us to get into her cell phone — who do they think they are?” (Trump appears to have initially misunderstood whose cell phone the FBI was attempting to access.) A day later, he elaborated on his stance at a town hall event in South Carolina. “Apple ought to give the security for that phone,” he said. “What I think you ought to do is boycott Apple until such time as they give that security number. How do you like that? I just thought of it.”
Around the time of the battle, senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) wrote a bill proposal that would potentially require tech companies to limit the security of their products to comply with government regulations to allow easier law enforcement access. The White House declined to offer public support for it, expressing skepticism that lawmakers could solve an issue as complex as encryption when they had trouble handling “simple things,” according to press secretary Josh Earnest.
The debate over encryption is by no means over, and Trump would likely be asked to back a similar bill in his first year as president. It’s for this reason that his remarks on the San Bernardino case have worried cybersecurity experts. “The private sector will be the main effort when it comes to cyber defense,” General Michael Hayden, a former CIA and NSA director who worked in the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations, told The Washington Post in an interview about encryption. “The Trump answer was vintage … bold, clear and wrong.” Susan Landau, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and former privacy adviser at Google, expressed concern that Trump may not fully understand the technology itself. “By providing a more secure system for online access, Apple’s secured phone is an excellent step in the right direction for cybersecurity, something that candidate Trump does not seem to grasp,” she told the Post.
If Trump backed a bill that weakened encryption, it would also likely send economic ripples through the consumer tech industry. Antagonism toward end-to-end encryption has already motivated some encryption startups to locate overseas, according to Derek Khanna, a Silicon Valley lawyer who used to work with the Republican Study Committee on tech issues, as well as for former Senator Scott Brown. Legislative action may render large investments in security startups obsolete.
“Say you’re any company in the Bitcoin space and there’s hundreds of millions of dollars that have been raised for Bitcoin companies,” Khanna said. “You hear that end-to-end encryption is illegal because it’s dangerous and you think: Well, I’m next on the chopping block.”
The NSA and Cybersecurity
Central to Trump’s stance that Apple should’ve helped the FBI access the San Bernardino shooter’s phone is the belief that national security is a higher priority than individual privacy. This is particularly helpful in framing how a hypothetical President Trump might use the National Security Agency’s artillery of spying and cyberwarfare tools that has become available to America’s commander-in-chief over the past decade. Trump is not one to turn down a chance to spy. He reportedly listened to conversations between staff and guests at his Mar-a-Lago resort in the 2000s. During the campaign, he called on Russian hackers to break into Clinton’s email. “Honestly, I wish I had that power,” Trump later said at a press conference. “I’d love to have that power.”
As president, he would have that power. As a recent Wired report points out, President Trump would be able to force new priorities on the NSA’s foreign intelligence mission, based on his relationships with certain leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin — essentially transferring current spying efforts directed toward Russia to its adversaries instead. “Trump has indicated he has unusual views about Vladimir Putin as an individual and Russian activity around the world that’s very problematic for the security interests of the U.S.,” former NSA counsel Susan Hennessey told Wired. “We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the intelligence community’s high-level priorities and the ability of the president to shift them.”
As commander-in-chief, Trump would also have the ability to undo the executive actions by President Obama that aimed to reform the NSA after public outcry caused by whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013, according to Wired. One such directive was designed to minimize invasion of citizens’ and noncitizens’ privacy and to prevent the NSA from using its intelligence capabilities to promote U.S. business interests and suppress foreign political uprisings.
Considering the increasing number of cyberattacks on United States institutions over just the past year, there’s no doubt that the next president will also be faced with difficult decisions about how to better protect America’s digital infrastructure and respond to aggressors. In fact, some analysts predict that the new president will face a cyberattack within his or her first 100 days in office. In the first presidential debate, Lester Holt asked Trump how he plans to fight this digital antagonism. “We had to get very, very tough on cyber and cyber warfare,” Trump said. “It is a huge problem.” In a March interview with The New York Times, Trump said the United States is “obsolete” in cyberwarfare, and that we were unaware of our attackers’ identity. “Certainly cyber has to be in our thought process, very strongly in our thought process,” he said. “Inconceivable that, inconceivable the power of cyber.”
A Trump presidency would also control the NSA’s ability to develop destructive digital weapons. In Obama’s first months in office, for instance, he launched an attack against Iranian nuclear facility equipment using a malware called Stuxnet that was created by the NSA and Israeli intelligence. Several cybersecurity experts I reached out to for this story said they were unable to offer hypothetical scenarios of how Trump might deal with cybersecurity because he had demonstrated very little knowledge in the area. “Trump has no coherent cybersecurity policy that he has articulated,” Ryan C. Maness, research fellow of security and resilience studies in the political science department at Northeastern University, told me. “So you are asking a near impossible question of me!”
However little we know about Trump’s approach to digital warfare, Khanna says Trump’s tendency to simplify complicated scenarios could be particularly damaging in an area where even the slightest overreaction could escalate a conflict.
“When it comes to cybersecurity, there’s a lot of nuance,” he said. “There’s a lot of tit-for-tat, gradient responses. What worries me particularly about Trump is it’s very black-or-white with him. When does a cyberwar turn into a kinetic action? What if a foreign adversary hacks us and the president says, ‘I’m going to respond with boots on the ground. I’m going to respond with bombs.’”
Though Trump has never indicated that he would retaliate against a cyberattack with lethal force, his early campaign speeches and debate answers offered one particularly memorable solution for combating the Islamic State’s effective spread of online extremism.
“We’re losing a lot of people because of the internet,” Trump said, in reference to ISIS’s effective recruiting abilities. “We have to talk … about, maybe in certain areas, closing that internet up in some ways. Somebody will say, ‘Oh, freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people.” Later statements clarified that Trump was specifically referring to parts of Syria and Iraq.
Though it may sound absurd to shut down a country’s online access, it’s not entirely impossible. In 2011, the Egyptian government attempted to quell uprisings by ordering service providers to sever all international connections to the internet. The following year the same thing happened in Syria, likely at the behest of the repressive regime of President Bashar al-Assad. According to a 2012 study from Jim Cowie, then chief technology officer at Renesys Corporation, at least 61 countries are at severe risk of having their internet connections shut off based on the infrastructure of their internet providers.
In theory, the United States could accomplish an internet blackout abroad by pressuring a foreign country’s telecommunication companies, severing its fiber-optic cables, taking out cellular towers, and destroying its satellite dishes. In countries like Turkey, whose leaders don’t particularly care for free speech, President Trump could even get help doing it. But according to Khanna, that strategy would contradict virtually 70 years’ worth of foreign policy that has found more public access to information — not less — is helpful in countering totalitarian regimes.
“The U.S. policy under the State Department has been that we want as much internet everywhere in the world as possible, particularly in troubled regions,” Khanna said.
In a way, Trump’s willingness to decide which areas should or should not have internet access strikes at the heart of the net neutrality wars that played out during President Obama’s second term. In 2014, the FCC released a plan that would have allowed internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon to create “internet fast lanes” — speedy connections for which websites owners, ranging from Google to CelebHeights.com, would be required to pay a premium. Online activists were outraged, and launched hundreds of digital campaigns to argue that the internet is a public utility. The FCC eventually caved under pressure from the public, and swapped its plans for one that ensured equal access for everyone.
More than a year after that public victory, however, trade groups and elected officials have quietly worked to reverse the decision. Trade groups representing internet service providers have challenged the new provisions in a U.S. appeals court, and several Republican-sponsored bills have attached riders that would essentially undo the internet’s qualification as a public utility. Though President Obama’s support of net neutrality solidified his legacy as a digital advocate, the next president will be just as responsible for ensuring his accomplishments don’t go to waste.
Though Trump has said very little about the issue recently, in 2014 he equated the proposal to another FCC rule. “Obama’s attack on the internet is another top down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target conservative media,” he tweeted. (The Fairness Doctrine is a now-defunct policy that required TV and radio stations to air opposing opinions on important topics.) Trump’s claim misunderstands the issue at stake in the net neutrality debate — a public vulnerability that Khanna argues is a sign he can be heavily persuaded by lobbyists who hope to overturn the FCC’s decision.
“What I’ve generally seen with Trump is that when he doesn’t have particular knowledge about something he seems like he’s very easily swayed by the loudest voices in the room, which tend to be lobbyists,” he said. “There are certainly smart voices that are against net neutrality, but most of the lobbying on the Republican side is against it. So it’s very easy for Trump just to say, ‘I’m super anti–net neutrality.’”
Under a Trump presidency, then, there may very well be “internet fast lanes” that would — among other things — hike up the price of our service, divide access to certain websites by provider, kill online innovation, and considerably slow your ability to stream Stranger Things.
That Trump himself would suffer the same inconveniences while tweeting from the Oval Office is unlikely. One who tweets from the @POTUS account need not to worry about these things.