Technology Giants: Once Seen as Saviors are now Seen as a Threat
The companies, which used to present themselves as engines of a better world, are now under intense scrutiny for allowing practices that go against democracy or the proper functioning of a society.
At the beginning of this decade, the Arab Spring prospered with the help of social networks.
This is the kind of story that the technology industry loves to tell about itself: it is bringing freedom, progressivism and a better future for all mankind.
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, proclaimed that this was precisely the reason why his social network existed. In a 2012 manifesto for investors, he said that Facebook was a tool to create “a more honest and transparent dialogue around the government.”
The result, he said, would be “better solutions to some of the greatest problems of our time.”
Now, technology companies are criticized for creating problems instead of solving them.
Number one on the list is Russian interference in the US presidential election last year. Social networks may have promised freedom at first, but it turned out to be an even more useful tool for angering.
The handling was so efficient and so lacking in transparency that the companies barely realized that this was happening.
The choice is not the only concern. Technology companies have accumulated a tremendous amount of power and influence.
Amazon determines how people buy, how Google acquires knowledge, Facebook how it communicates. Everyone is making decisions about who has access to the digital megaphone and who should disconnect from the network.
Their amount of concentrated authority resembles the divine right of kings and is awakening a rejection that is still gathering strength.
“For ten years, the arguments in technology had to do with which executive director was more like Jesus Christ. Which would run for president.
Who convinced workers better to support them, “said Scott Galloway, a professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University. “Now the feelings are changing. The victim rebels. “
On Facebook, Twitter and now Google, is spreading the news of how the Russians took advantage of their advertising systems and publications.
On November 1, the Senate Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing on the matter. It is unlikely to improve the reputation of companies.
Under increasing pressure, companies are grappling with a public relations attack.
Sheryl Sandberg, the COO, was in Washington this week, meeting with lawmakers and acknowledging mistakes in public about how things went during the election and said: “they should not have happened.”
Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, was in Pittsburgh on Thursday talking about “the great opportunity gaps across the United States” and announcing a $ 1 billion grant program to promote jobs.
In the background of these meetings is the reality that the internet has long been a business, which implies that the priority of companies is to please their shareholders.
Ross Baird, president of venture capital firm Village Capital, said that when ProPublica tried to buy anti-Semitic ads last month on Facebook, the platform did not question whether that was a bad idea: asked buyers how they would like pay.
” Despite all of Silicon Valley’s talk about changing the world, its main focus has been on what it can monetize,” Baird said.
Of course, criticism of technology is nothing new. In an exaggerated lamentation published in Newsweek in 1995, “Why the Web Will not Be Nirvana,” astronomer Clifford Stoll noted that “every voice can be heard costlessly and instantaneously” on the Usenet bulletin boards, Twitter and Facebook of that era.
“The result?” He wrote. “Every voice is heard. The cacophony is more like the civil radio wave, yet madness, harassment, and anonymous threats. When almost everyone shouts, few listen. “
If social networks are on the defensive, Zuckerberg is above all at the center of everything: a strange event in an impeccable career that has turned him, at 33, into one of the richest and most influential people in the world.
“We have a saying, ‘Move quickly and break things,'” he wrote in his 2012 manifesto. “The idea is that if you never break anything, you may not be moving fast enough.”
Facebook abandoned that motto two years later, but critics say it has retained much of that arrogance. Galloway, whose new book, “The Four,” discusses the power of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple, said the social network was still preparing its response.
“Zuckerberg and Facebook are violating the number one rule of crisis management: overcoming the problem,” he said. “Their attitude is that they find it impossible to do anything that damages their profits.”
Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, said the network was doing its best. ” Facebook is an important part of many people’s lives, ” he said. “That’s a huge responsibility, one that we take very seriously.”
Some social network entrepreneurs recognize that they are facing problems they never imagined as employees or emerging companies struggling to survive.
“There was no time to think about the repercussions of everything we did,” Biz Stone, a Twitter co-founder, said in an interview shortly before returning to service last spring.
He argued that Twitter was acquiring an unfair reputation: “For every bad thing, there are thousands of good ones.” However, he acknowledged that sometimes “things get complicated”.
Despite mounting criticism, the vast majority of investors, consumers and regulators appear not to have changed their behavior. People are still looking forward to the new iPhone.
Facebook has more than 2 billion users. President Donald Trump likes to criticize Amazon on Twitter, but his administration ignored requests for a thorough examination of Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods.
However, in Europe, the terrain is changing. Google’s share of the continent’s search engine market is 92%, according to StatCounter.
But that did not stop the European Union from fining it $ 2.7 billion in June for giving priority to its own products above those of its rivals.
A new German law that fines large sums to social networks for not eliminating the hate speech came into effect this month.
On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom said the government was “carefully reviewing the roles, accountability and legal status” of Google and Facebook with a view to regulating them as news editors rather than platforms.
“This war, like many others, will begin in Europe,” said Galloway, a professor at New York University.
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