Cisco CEO Robbins Talks Tariffs, 'Privacy As A Human Right,' And Trust In The Tech Sector

In The Limelight

Chuck Robbins has a lot on his plate. The CEO of Cisco Systems this week made a passionate call for federal privacy regulations, calling privacy "a fundamental human right." At the same time, the threat of higher tariffs is still looming and the tech industry is bracing for impact.

Robbins took to CNBC Friday morning to talk about the potential rise in tariffs that could stem from the U.S.-China trade deal, the importance of privacy and trust, and how tech companies can help legislators. Here's what Robbins had to say in the interview.

What could tariffs mean for Cisco if they went from 10 percent to 25 percent?

We were able to manage through the 10 percent situation but our belief is if we go to 25 percent, it's going to become increasingly difficult to pass that all through our customers in order to remain competitive globally, so at that point we are going to have to make a decision either way—we sacrifice the P&L or we make cuts in other places. If we make cuts in other places, we put R&D at risk and I don’t think we want U.S. companies to cut R&D in light of the 5G transition and everything else, so we are still optimistic in light of the rhetoric, which could be considered negotiation, that there will at least be enough progress so that [the government] won't have to do this in March.

Cisco is spending $4 billion a year in the U.S. alone on R&D. That money is currently going to 5G and what else?

We are doing cyber security R&D, and R&D on next-gen infrastructure platforms. People don’t understand what we do, but everyone around the world that looks at their phone and tries to initiate a query, a great deal of that infrastructure that makes that happen is our stuff. As the traffic and video loads increase on the internet, we have to keep building high-capacity infrastructure because the requirements are increasing. It's important stuff.

Some tech companies have applied for exceptions from the tariffs. Has Cisco applied?

We worked through that on the 10 percent and were not successful. There was some debate whether there would be exceptions for the 25 percent, but I think it [is happening], so we will work through that.

You've been working on privacy as a fundamental right for humans. Why did you take that on?

We think the tech industry has to play a role in many of these critical policy issues and this is one that is so important not only to the tech sector, but also for the world in taking advantage of what this technology can do. There is so much positive that can be done, whether we are delivering broadband to rural parts of the world, or even in the U.S. [to those] that have never had it before so we can connect people so they can be educated and connected to this global macro expansion we've seen, or whether it helps us solve problems of hunger or homelessness. If we don’t get past some of these issues we are never going to be able to do that. We think all tech companies need to stand up and help get this issue to a resolution, so that’s what we hope we started.

[Is it the case that] it’s a lot easier for Cisco to be out in front on the privacy issues because it's perhaps not as important to the business model like it is for Facebook, etc.?

I think it’s a matter of deeply understanding what the technology does because it's not an issue that’s not relevant to us. … I can tell you having gone through the Snowden stuff and convincing other governments that we were not giving special access to our products and that privacy does matter and sovereign rights matter—it’s a big issue to us.

With the Huawei issue, it seems like some Western nations might be siding with U.S.-based companies and Eastern nations might be siding with Huawei. Is that really happening and how big of a risk is that?

We are in the early stages of this discussion and what I know are the same things you see in the press. I will say I don’t believe getting to some balkanized global internet is the right answer because so many of the things we can do with these technologies is going to require us to maintain connectivity, which is why we need to get privacy, cyber security and trust right. We have to find a way to solve these issues across borders so we can continue to move forward.

Have you talked to other tech CEOs about this issue?

We have talked to several and they all understand it because you can't build your services country by county and actually scale globally—it's not going to work. This is why you saw the European Commission working so hard on a single digital market because if you get into a place where companies have to build out their services in every country, the smaller countries are just not going to stay in the forefront of technology because you can't afford to build out there. You’re going to let them slide.

You also need to have empathy for these regulatory groups, these politicians that are trying to set regulations in the tech industry that is moving so fast. Frankly, those of us that are living in it every day have to work hard to keep up with it, and now we are asking other people who aren't technologists to keep up with it and understand it deeply enough to come up with regulations. It's incredibly difficult. We don’t have to define things but let us educate you on the things you don’t understand, and they ultimately get to make the decision, but we can do a better job of working with them.

Is Congress responsive to that help?

Yes, not only Congress but the European Commission and most every country on the planet as long as you come in front [with] a perspective of really trying to help them understand it. It's self-serving from the perspective that we want all these technologies to be deployed globally for the right reasons.