Tech gi­ants, once ad­mired, now viewed as threats

Houston Chronicle - - BUSINESS - By David Stre­it­feld

SAN FRAN­CISCO — At the start of this decade, the Arab Spring blos­somed with the help of so­cial me­dia. That is the sort of story the tech industry loves to tell about it­self: It is bring­ing free­dom, en­light­en­ment and a bet­ter fu­ture for all mankind.

Mark Zucker­berg, the Face­book founder, pro­claimed that this was ex­actly why his so­cial net­work ex­isted. In a 2012 man­i­festo for in­vestors, he said Face­book was a tool to cre­ate “a more hon­est and trans­par­ent di­a­logue around gov­ern­ment.” The re­sult, he said, would be “bet­ter so­lu­tions to some of the big­gest prob­lems of our time.”

Now tech com­pa­nies are un­der fire for cre­at­ing prob­lems in­stead of solv­ing them.

At the top of the list is Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. So­cial me­dia might have orig­i­nally promised lib­er­a­tion, but they proved an even more use­ful tool for stok­ing anger. The ma­nip­u­la­tion was so ef­fi­cient and so lack­ing in trans­parency that the com­pa­nies them­selves barely no­ticed it was hap­pen­ing.

The elec­tion is far from the only area of con­cern. Tech com­pa­nies have ac­crued a tremen­dous amount of power and in­flu­ence. Ama­zon de­ter­mines how peo­ple shop, Google how they ac­quire knowl­edge, Face­book how they com­mu­ni­cate. All of them are mak­ing de­ci­sions about who gets a dig­i­tal mega­phone and who should be un­plugged from the web.

Their amount of con­cen­trated au­thor­ity re­sem­bles the divine right of kings, and is spark­ing a back­lash that is still gath­er­ing force.

“For 10 years, the ar­gu­ments in tech were about which chief ex­ec­u­tive was more like Je­sus. Which one was go­ing to run for pres­i­dent. Who did the best job con­vinc­ing the work­force to lean in,” said Scott Gal­loway, a pro­fes­sor at New York Univer­sity’s Stern School of Busi­ness. “Now sen­ti­ments are shift­ing. The worm has turned.”

The re­al­ity is that the in­ter­net long ago be­came a busi­ness, which means the com­pa­nies’ first im­per­a­tive is to do right by their stock­hold­ers.

Ross Baird, pres­i­dent of the ven­ture cap­i­tal firm Vil­lage Cap­i­tal, noted that when ProPublica tried last month to buy tar­geted ads for “Jew haters” on Face­book, the plat­form did not ques­tion whether this was a bad idea — it asked the buy­ers how they would like to pay.

“For all the lip ser­vice that Sil­i­con Val­ley has given to chang­ing the world, its ul­ti­mate fo­cus has been on what it can mon­e­tize,” Baird said.

Crit­i­cism of tech is noth­ing new, of course. In a Newsweek jeremiad in 1995 ti­tled “Why the Web Won’t Be Nir­vana,” as­tronomer Clif­ford Stoll pointed out that “every voice can be heard cheaply and in­stantly” on the Usenet bulletin boards, that era’s Twit­ter and Face­book.

“The re­sult?” he wrote. “Every voice is heard. The ca­coph­ony more closely re­sem­bles cit­i­zens band ra­dio, com­plete with han­dles, ha­rass­ment and anony­mous threats. When most ev­ery­one shouts, few lis­ten.”

Ali Asaei / New York Times file

Amer­i­can tech com­pa­nies po­si­tioned them­selves as en­ti­ties that brought pos­i­tive change. But per­cep­tions are chang­ing as their sys­tems and tools have also been used to un­der­mine democ­racy.

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