Starting to think the big internet companies in Silicon Valley are out of control? Wondering if they have gotten too big and too powerful and that maybe they’re to blame for a lot of society’s problems?
You are not alone – and these days, it is not just your fellow internet monopoly skeptics who agree with you. Some of the loudest voices speaking out against Google and Facebook are coming from within the industry itself!
In February, Roger McNamee, a longtime technology investor and former advisor to Mark Zuckerberg, told CBS This Morning that dominant platforms like Facebook and Google are “terrible for America” and “prey on the weakest elements of our psychology to create, first, habits, and then addictions.”
McNamee’s choice of language here is telling. Using words like “habits” and “addictions,” he could just as easily have been discussing the harms enacted by another industry notorious for concealing the truth about its impact on consumers – Big Tobacco.
Think that is a stretch? Well, listen to the words of another tech mogul:
“Facebook is the new cigarettes,” said Mark Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, speaking with Recode’s Kara Swisher last November. “It’s addictive. It’s not good for you… We can see that Facebook can have very serious effects on society, the same way that cigarettes can… There are far-reaching aspects of the technology that people still don’t understand.”
What kind of far-reaching aspects? According to another former industry veteran, Tristan Harris, the kind that could spark a “digital attention crisis.”
“You could say it’s my responsibility to have self-control when it comes to these internet products,” Harris told The Atlantic, “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”
A onetime “design ethicist” for Google, Harris now works to change the fundamentals of software design with his nonprofit, the Center for Humane Technology. As with former Big Tobacco whistleblowers, Harris saw firsthand how the industry that once employed him used powerfully manipulative techniques to hook and entrap people. “They play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention,” he has written. “Slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined… When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got… When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got.”
Unlike tobacco and internet companies, however, no one is angrily referring to the slots business as “Big Gambling” – because, unlike Google and Facebook, gambling has never pretended to be something it is not. Big Tobacco, however, spent years aggressively positioning cigarettes in its advertising and public statements as not only healthy, but physician-approved. It also spent millions on lobbying for government policy that protected it from regulation – sound familiar?
Facebook and Google have run the same, cynical publicity playbook. Each set company records in 2018 for lobbying spending in Washington. Each have become old pros at downplaying, deflecting, or downright deceiving lawmakers and citizens alike about the negative impacts of their products. And, fueled by catchphrases such as “Don’t Be Evil” and “Bringing the World Closer Together,” each have poured vast resources into positioning themselves as altruistic forces that shape our lives in profoundly positive ways.
In retrospect, it’s clear that Big Tobacco, before the truth of its health ramifications finally began to catch up to it, was maliciously lying to preserve its bottom line. With Google and Facebook, it’s hard to tell where malice begins and self-delusion ends.
“‘Data driven’ has become a badge of honor for many companies,” read a May 2017 tweet from Josh Elman, a product designer and investor who has worked with both Twitter and Facebook. “But adhering to what data says without asking why or what’s best is dangerous… I worry every day that this is the same mistake that allowed Big Tobacco and Big Oil to miss [their] impact on health and environment.”
It’s hard to imagine that Big Tobacco and Big Oil ever “missed” their impact on health and the environment, but with Google and Facebook, the jury is still out. It’s quite possible that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai really do believe they are doing the world a public service, even as their platforms unwittingly facilitate human trafficking, black-market sales of drugs and other illicit wares, widespread copyright infringement, and democracy-threatening abuses by hostile powers both at home and abroad. Their failure to take responsible measures to stop these abuses is why Benioff says that “the government needs to really regulate what’s happening.” “The government has to step in. The role of government is to protect us in times of severe change. They did that with the cigarette industry, they need to do that with the tech industry.”
Remember: it took decades for Big Tobacco, whose product literally kills people, to come under meaningful federal regulation, even as the industry took no responsibility for its actions.
Will history repeat itself? “The challenges posed by internet platform monopolies” will “require new approaches beyond antitrust enforcement,” wrote McNamee, for The Guardian. “We must recognize and address these challenges as a threat to public health.”
Correct. Let’s get started.