By Ruth Vitale
In 2009, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted in a Business Insider interview that his prime directive to his developers and team was to “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.”
Zuckerberg would later update that uplifting little motto to the far less catchy, “Move fast with stable infrastructure,” but he had already revealed plenty about the way Facebook, along with other Silicon Valley monopolies, was running business: Rush forward. Throw caution to the wind. Smash through societal walls and don’t bother picking up the wreckage, or even acknowledging it – no time for that.
In almost any other context, we would be incensed if a person or group were to behave in this manner, and yet, for years, we not only tolerated Big Tech’s careless march forward, we encouraged it. And, the government inadvertently encouraged this behavior two decades ago with sweeping “safe harbor” legislation that has allowed companies like Google and Facebook to evade liability for egregious transgressions on their sites, including piracy, fake news, cyberbullying, and even sex trafficking. These twenty-year-old laws were drafted during the consumer internet’s infancy – when websites like Google were months old and Facebook and YouTube were still gestating in dirty dorm rooms.
Now, however, concerned citizens are finally waking up to the fact that Big Tech has been getting away with too much, for too long. A Morning Consult blog post from earlier this year, titled “The Days of Tech Exceptionalism Are Over,” called upon the tech industry to acknowledge that “the ‘move fast and break things’ model is dead.” Written by Vrge Strategies founder Scott Gerber, the piece went on to say that “social media companies’ failure to protect their platforms from Russian meddling” and the “embrace of artificial intelligence” has given Americans a “deeply divided view toward tech.”
When it first came out, Gerber’s post felt prescient. In retrospect, as the scandals have continued to mount for Silicon Valley’s once vaunted institutions, it feels revelatory. In just the short time since its publication, we’ve seen Facebook suffer another, even bigger data breach than the Cambridge Analytica debacle and we’ve seen Google join in with a data “exposure” of their own – which they somehow failed/forgot to tell users about for months. We’ve also seen Google continue full steam ahead with an extremely contentious, censored version of its search engine aimed at the Chinese market and we’ve seen Facebook mislead advertisers about the potential reach of its video services.
Perhaps the surest sign of Facebook’s unraveling is the stunningly long list of top executives who have fled the company in the past year – including Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum, and former Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe. When they are stampeding towards the door, you know there’s a problem – only, what happens now?
Writings such as Gerber’s post have helped usher us toward this moment of collective awareness, but they also tend to avoid supplying solutions for the problems they raise. Gerber, for instance, offers no alternatives to the “move fast and break things” model he declares dead. I can’t say I blame him – it’s a complicated problem with no quick-fix solutions – but we have to start somewhere, and I do have a suggestion.
We can start with creative rights online, which really seems to be an easy fix, relative to others. Why? Because the core copyright industries add $1.2 trillion annually to the U.S. GDP, accounting or 6.88% of the U.S economy.
For decades, Big Tech’s has enabled piracy on internet platforms to a staggering degree. We all know about Napster and how illegal file sharing nearly decimated the entire music industry. The advent of streaming has helped music bounce back, but the tradeoff has been that streaming has also made the stealing of film and television offerings easier than ever before. According to Digital TV Research, we can expect the entertainment industry to lose $52 billion to piracy by 2022.
That’s the kind of revenue loss that can once again jeopardize an entire industry. In this case, it won’t be the big tentpole superhero movies that take the brunt of it, but the little guys. That’s right, the vibrant ecosystem of theatrical indie film is dying, and, in great part, it’s thanks to online piracy that is mostly sniffed at and ignored by Big Tech.
And what about journalism? Facebook and Google came along and stole their business model and their profits, all the while helping to introduce the concept of fake news to our already-unraveling social fabric.
I’m no visionary futurist, but as a longtime veteran of the film industry, I can say that this disregard for the intellectual property of others has long been a canary in the coal mine for how all materials and all people are treated by our biggest internet companies – as solely a means to an ad-driven, profitable end. Even if you have zero sympathy for struggling artists, writers, musicians, journalists, or filmmakers, this sort of behavior should still bother you. And it should bother you even more because they aren’t treating you any differently. You are Google and Facebook’s product, and their surveillance apparatus was built to monetize you without compensation.
But as the pressure mounts over their bad behavior, companies like Facebook and Google could make a difference on this front. They could start accepting responsibility for the illegal, copyrighted works that appear on their platforms, as well as the ways in which their platforms facilitate the distribution of creative content without compensation to the creatives. And, they could find a comprehensive way to limit those occurrences rather than offering stopgap patches.
What does a comprehensive fix to the global, unauthorized use of copyrighted works look like? I don’t know. I run a creative coalition and was in independent film for over 30 years. I’m not an engineer. But I do know that if these companies can come up with a sophisticated algorithm that addicts us by serving us exactly what we want to see all the time, and, while doing so, become some of the largest corporations in the history of mankind, then they can find a comprehensive fix for us, as well.
Finding this solution would not only be good for the more than 5.5 million Americans who make a living in the core copyright industries – it would be good for all of us. But even more importantly, it would make a powerful statement: When you respect creative works, you respect human beings. You show you care about individuals, and not just the profits that can be generated from their creations – from their movies, from their songs, and from their data regardless of where it comes from.
Of course, addressing these abuses is just one of many steps needed in developing an overall solution that will address the problems with Big Tech. But, it’s a great place to start and build upon.