We are beginning to understand that tech companies don’t have our best interests at heart. Did they ever?
LATE last month, Mark Zuckerberg wrote a brief post on Facebook at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, asking his friends for forgiveness not just for his personal failures but also for his professional ones, especially “the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together.” He was heeding the call of the Jewish Day of Atonement to take stock of the year just passed as he pledged that he would “work to do better.”
Such a somber, self-critical statement hasn’t been typical for the usually sunny Mr. Zuckerberg, who once exhorted his employees at Facebook to “move fast and break things.” In the past, why would Mr. Zuckerberg, or any of his peers, have felt the need to atone for what they did at the office? For making incredibly cool sites that seamlessly connect billions of people to their friends as well as to a global storehouse of knowledge?Lately, however, the sins of Silicon Valley-led disruption have become impossible to ignore.
Facebook has endured a drip, drip of revelations concerning Russian operatives who used its platform to influence the 2016 presidential election by stirring up racist anger. Google had a similar role in carrying targeted, inflammatory messages during the election, and this summer, it appeared to play the heavy when an important liberal think tank, New America, cut ties with a prominent scholar who is critical of the power of digital monopolies. Some within the organization questioned whether he was dismissed to appease Google and its executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, both longstanding donors, though New America’s executive president and a Google representative denied a connection.
Meanwhile, Amazon, with its purchase of the Whole Foods supermarket chain and the construction of brick-and-mortar stores, pursues the breathtakingly lucrative strategy of parlaying a monopoly position online into an offline one, too.These menacing turns of events have been quite bewildering to the public, running counter to everything Silicon Valley had preached about itself. Google, for example, says its purpose is “to organize the world’s information, making it universally accessible and useful,” a quest that could describe your local library as much as a Fortune 500 company. Similarly, Facebook aims to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Even Amazon looked outside itself for fulfillment by seeking to become, in the words of its founder, Jeff Bezos, “the most customer-obsessed company to ever occupy planet Earth.”Almost from its inception, the World Wide Web produced public anxiety — your computer was joined to a network that was beyond your ken and could send worms, viruses and trackers your way — but we nonetheless were inclined to give these earnest innovators the benefit of the doubt. They were on our side in making the web safe and useful, and thus it became easy to interpret each misstep as an unfortunate accident on the path to digital utopia rather than as subterfuge meant to ensure world domination.Now that Google, Facebook, Amazon have become world dominators, the questions of the hour are, can the public be convinced to see Silicon Valley as the wrecking ball that it is? And do we still have the regulatory tools and social cohesion to restrain the monopolists before they smash the foundations of our society?By all accounts, these programmers turned entrepreneurs believed their lofty words and were at first indifferent to getting rich from their ideas. A 1998 paper by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, then computer-science graduate students at Stanford, stressed the social benefits of their new search engine, Google, which would be open to the scrutiny of other researchers and wouldn’t be advertising-driven. The public needed to be assured that searches were uncorrupted, that no one had put his finger on the scale for business reasons.
To illustrate their point, Mr. Brin and Mr. Page boasted of the purity of their search engine’s results for the query “cellular phone”; near the top was a study explaining the danger of driving while on the phone. The Google prototype was still ad-free, but what about the others, which took ads? Mr. Brin and Mr. Page had their doubts: “We expect that advertising-funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.”There was a crucial need for “a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm,” and Google was set to be that ivory tower internet tool. Until, that is, Mr. Brin and Mr. Page were swept up by the entrepreneurism pervasive to Stanford — a meeting with a professor led to a meeting with an investor, who wrote a $100,000 check before Google was even a company. In 1999, Google announced a $25 million investment of venture capital while insisting nothing had changed. When Mr. Brin was asked by reporters how Google planned to make money, he replied, “Our goal is to maximize the search experience, not maximize the revenues from search.”...MORE