Digital economy leaders have been out in force over the past 48 hours since the Governor of North Carolina signed the latest, and most draconian, anti-LGBTI legislation to date.
Supporters of the Bill, which was bounced through the Republican-controlled legislature and signed off by Governor Pat McCrory in less than 12 hours, say that the Bill is a response to an anti-discrimination ordinance in Charlotte last month that would permit transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity, rather than their gender at birth.
But in practice, the Bill passed on Wednesday night goes far further than that by stripping away anti-discrimination protection for LGBTI citizens completely. The law confirms a statewide non-discrimination ordinance protecting people on the basis of race, religion and color, but specifically excludes sexual orientation and gender identity.
Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Citrix and Salesforce were among those from the tech community which immediately hit out at the Bill.
Apple issued a statement:
Our future as Americans should be focused on inclusion and prosperity, and not discrimination and division. We were disappointed to see Governor McCrory sign this legislation.
Facebook, which has a data center in North Carolina, said:
We are disappointed by the recent events in North Carolina. As a company, Facebook is an open and vocal supporter of equality. We believe in ensuring the rights of LGBT individuals and oppose efforts that discriminate against people on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Red Hat, which has a large presence in the state, added:
At #RedHat we strongly value diversity ... HB#2 is a clear step backwards. Sad day.
And PayPal, set to expand its footprint in the state, said:
But attention will turn to what action IBM is prepared to take as North Carolina’s largest tech employer. The firm has issued its own criticism:
IBM is opposed to discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, national origin, genetics, disability, or age. Our company has had an explicit policy of non-discrimination based on gender identity or expression since 2002.
We are disappointed by the passage of HB2 in the North Carolina General Assembly because this measure will reduce, rather than expand, the scope of anti-discrimination protection in the state. IBM will continue to follow its global non-discrimination policies in the workplace, and believes that an inclusive and welcoming environment is the best way to attract talented individuals to our company.
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff - who’s been high-profile in challenging similar legislation in Georgia - added his condemnation. A few weeks ago, Benioff talked about how in Georgia, where Salesforce has a large hub, the firm was able to be ahead of the curve in opposing that state’s legislation, whereas in Indiana last year it was caught on the hop.
The sheer speed with which the North Carolina legislature moved this week, perhaps with an eye to resistance and outcry in both Indiana and Georgia, came out of left-field. Benioff told The Huffington Post:
It caught us by surprise. I saw it last night. This is typical [and is] what happened in Indiana, where we hear about it after it is signed.
Certainly the proponents of the Bill were taking no chances. A special session was convened on Wednesday at a cost to the North Carolina taxpayer of over $42,000 - it was that important! In the House, thirty minutes was allocated for public debate, with speakers limited to two minutes each. In the Senate, Democrats walked out, leaving the bill to pass 32-0.
A breathtakingly ruthless shoving through of draconian legislation that would make House of Cards Frank Underwood proud.
I speculated after Georgia that this would turn into a US election issue. What’s interesting this time around is that both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have condemned what’s just happened in North Carolina in the strongest terms. While Donald Trump and Ted Cruz appear to have been too busy name-calling one another over their wives to have made any comment to date, such discriminatory legislative pushes at state-level may soon become a national talking-point on the campaign trails.
The business community as a whole has taken prompt action in voicing objection:
On this occasion, Salesforce doesn’t have as much skin in the game in terms of employees on the ground as it does in Georgia or Indiana. Others, such as PayPal which is due to add a further 400 jobs in the state, will have more economic clout to bring to bear.
From a digital economy perspective, IBM needs to take the lead in North Carolina and follow through on its verbal condemnation with continued pressure on the legislature, supported by those tech firms with feet on the ground in the state.
Again, it’s cheering to see tech leadership rising to the challenge of supporting diversity and no-discrimination in a digital economy, if phenomenally depressing that there's a need to do so in 2016.
A positive precedent has been set however and also an interesting challenge laid down to the tech industry about how far it can and will go to protect diversity in a digital age.
The fiercest criticism has come from the vendor community where firms have presence and employees in the states concerned.
But there's a flip side. Salesforce, for example, may not have as many employees in North Carolina as it does in Georgia, but it undoubtedly has customers and buyers in the state who are adversely impacted by bigots charters like those being pushed through in certain states.
Watching the digital leadership step up, if it chooses to do so, to that task of supporting the buy side will be fascinating. Will buyers be inclined to support, in turn, those of their vendors who take the most progressive stance in protecting their rights? Will there be economic rewards as well as a moral imperative that come into play?
Meanwhile back in Georgia, Senator Nathan Deal is still dithering over whether to sign off that state’s own discriminatory Bill. The latest companies to warn him of the consequences of that are Disney, Time Warner and Marvel. Frankly, it’s hard to know how much more it’s going to take, before what’s about to happen to Georgia's economy if Deal doesn’t deliver a veto sinks in.