Now-former president Trump’s last minute pardon of self-driving car engineer Anthony Levandowski raises a fascinating question about crime and punishment in Silicon Valley. When a judge last year sentenced Levandowski to 18 months in prison for stealing a proprietary Google document, he said his goal was deterrence. As we reported at the time, the judge said letting Levandowski off without a jail sentence would give the “green light to any engineer to steal trade secrets. Prison time is the answer to that.”
That seems a reasonable position. Yet the Trump White House said the pardon was “strongly supported” by more than a dozen people it named, including Peter Thiel and several people associated with Thiel, along with other people in tech or academia. From what we hear, this group had several reasons for advocating for the pardon. One was that engineers frequently take things from one job to another, although it’s usually innocent. The other, more illuminating argument is that Levandowski is rare in his technical brilliance and that the U.S. needs to unleash those talents if it is to continue to prosper.