Saudi money fuels the tech industry. It’s time to ask why

Saudi Arabia

We need to talk about the tsunami of questionable money crashing into the tech industry.

We should talk about it because that money is suddenly in the news, inconveniently out in the open in an industry that has preferred to keep its connection to petromonarchs and other strongmen on the down low.

The news started surfacing over the weekend, when Saudi Arabia arrested a passel of princes, including Alwaleed bin Talal, the billionaire tech investor who has large holdings in Apple, Twitter and Lyft. The arrests, part of what the Saudis called a corruption crackdown, opened up a chasm under the tech industry’s justification for taking money from the religious monarchy.

Then there’s Russia. My colleague Jesse Drucker reported on Sunday that Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire who plowed early investments into Twitter and Facebook, had been funded in part by companies controlled by the Kremlin. DST Global, Mr. Milner’s company, defended the arrangement as just business, and noted that DST had divested from Facebook and Twitter years ago. DST had appeared to go to some lengths to hide the source of the funds through many offshore companies.

But mostly we need to talk about this money because, boy, is there a whole lot of it — and as the world’s moneyed dictators, oligarchs and other characters look for more places to park their billions, mountains more will be coming to Silicon Valley.

This presents a conundrum. Tech companies are fond of pseudo-revolutionary mission statements that extol the virtues of diversity, tolerance, freedom of expression and other progressive ideals. They have argued that their technologies are part of a force for global liberation — that forging more open communication and economic productivity through technology will loosen the grip of tyrannies across the globe. For much of the last year, Silicon Valley has also promised a revolution in its own culture, with large and small companies alike vowing to become more inclusive of women and minorities.

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