Tech in­dus­try gi­ants, once seen as sav­iors, are now viewed as threats to democ­racy

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By David Streitfeld NEW YORK TIMES

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 it 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.”

News is drip­ping out of Face­book, Twit­ter and now Google about how their ad and pub­lish­ing sys­tems were har­nessed by the Rus­sians. On Nov. 1, the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing on the mat­ter. It is un­likely to en­hance the com­pa­nies’ rep­u­ta­tions.

Un­der grow­ing pres­sure, the com­pa­nies are mount­ing a pub­lic re­la­tions blitz. Sh­eryl Sand­berg, Face­book’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, was in Wash­ing­ton this week, meet­ing with law­mak­ers and mak­ing pub­lic mea cul­pas about how things hap­pened dur­ing the elec­tion “that should not have hap­pened.” Sun­dar Pichai, Google’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, was in Pitts­burgh on Thurs­day talk­ing about the “large gaps in op­por­tu­nity across the U.S.” and an­nounc­ing a $1 bil­lion grant pro­gram to pro­mote jobs.

Un­der­ly­ing the meet-and-greets is the re­al­ity 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.”

Such com­plaints, re­peated at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals, did not stop the tech world from seiz­ing the mo­ment. Mil­lions and then bil­lions of peo­ple flocked to its ser­vices. The chief ex­ec­u­tives were re­garded as sages. Dis­rup­tion was the high­est good.

What is dif­fer­ent to­day are the warn­ings from the tech­nol­o­gists them­selves. “The mon­e­ti­za­tion and ma­nip­u­la­tion of in­for­ma­tion is swiftly tear­ing us apart,” Pierre Omid­yar, the founder of eBay, wrote this week.

Justin Rosen­stein, a for­mer Face­book en­gi­neer, was por­trayed in a re­cent Guardian story as an apos­tate: Not­ing that some­times in­ven­tors have re­grets, he said he had pro­grammed his new phone to not let him use the so­cial net­work.

Rosen­stein, a co-founder of Asana, an of­fice pro­duc­tiv­ity startup, said in an email that he had banned not just Face­book but also the Sa­fari and Chrome browsers, Gmail and other ap­pli­ca­tions.

“I re­al­ized that I spend a lot of time mind­lessly in­ter­act­ing with my phone in ways that aren’t serv­ing me,” he wrote. “Face­book is a very pow­er­ful tool that I con­tinue to use ev­ery day, just with more mind­ful­ness.”

If so­cial me­dia is on the de­fen­sive, Zucker­berg is par­tic­u­larly on the spot – a rare event in a golden ca­reer that has made him, at 33, one of the rich­est and most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple on the planet.

“We have a say­ing: ‘Move fast and break things,’” he wrote in his 2012 man­i­festo. “The idea is that if you never break any­thing, you’re prob­a­bly not mov­ing fast enough.”

Face­book dropped that motto two years later, but crit­ics say too much of the im­plicit ar­ro­gance has lin­gered. Gal­loway, whose new book, “The Four,” an­a­lyzes the power of Face­book, Ama­zon, Google and Ap­ple, said the so­cial me­dia net­work was still fum­bling its re­sponse.

“Zucker­berg and Face­book are vi­o­lat­ing the No. 1 rule of cri­sis man­age­ment: Over­cor­rect for the prob­lem,” he said. “Their at­ti­tude is that any­thing that dam­ages their prof­its is im­pos­si­ble for them to do.”

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 an enor­mous re­spon­si­bil­ity – and one that we take in­cred­i­bly se­ri­ously”

Some so­cial me­dia en­trepreneurs ac­knowl­edge that they are con­fronting is­sues they never imag­ined as em­ploy­ees of star­tups strug­gling to sur­vive.

“There wasn’t time to think through the reper­cus­sions of ev­ery­thing we did,” Biz Stone, a Twit­ter co-founder, said in an in­ter­view shortly be­fore he re­joined the ser­vice last spring.

He main­tained that Twit­ter was get­ting an un­fair rap: “For ev­ery bad thing, there are a thou­sand good things.” He ac­knowl­edged, how­ever, that some­times “it gets a lit­tle messy.”

De­spite the swell of crit­i­cism, the vast ma­jor­ity of in­vestors, con­sumers and reg­u­la­tors seem not to have changed their be­hav­ior. Peo­ple still ea­gerly await the new iPhone. Face­book has more than 2 bil­lion users. Pres­i­dent Trump likes to crit­i­cize Ama­zon on Twit­ter, but his ad­min­is­tra­tion ig­nored pleas for a rig­or­ous ex­am­i­na­tion of Ama­zon’s pur­chase of Whole Foods.

In Europe, how­ever, the ground is shift­ing. Google’s share of the search engine mar­ket there is 92 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to StatCounter. But that did not stop the Euro­pean Union from fin­ing it $2.7 bil­lion in June for putting its own prod­ucts above those of ri­vals.

A new Ger­man law that fines so­cial net­works huge sums for not tak­ing down hate speech went into ef­fect this month. On Tues­day, a spokesman for Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May of Bri­tain said the govern­ment was look­ing “care­fully at the roles, re­spon­si­bil­ity and le­gal sta­tus” of Google and Face­book, with an eye to reg­u­lat­ing them as news pub­lish­ers rather than plat­forms.

“This war, like so many wars, is go­ing to start in Europe,” said Gal­loway, the New York Univer­sity pro­fes­sor.

For some tech com­pa­nies, the new power is a heavy weight. Cloud­flare, which pro­vides many sites with es­sen­tial pro­tec­tion from hack­ing, made its first editorial de­ci­sion in Au­gust: It lifted its pro­tec­tion from the Daily Stormer, ba­si­cally ex­pung­ing the neo-Nazi site from the vis­i­ble web.

“In­creas­ingly tech com­pa­nies are go­ing to be put into the po­si­tion of mak­ing th­ese sorts of judg­ments,” said Matthew Prince, Cloud­flare’s chief ex­ec­u­tive. Prince fore­sees sev­eral pos­si­ble dystopian fu­tures. One is where ev­ery search engine has a po­lit­i­cal point of view, and the other op­po­site ex­treme: All dis­sent is fil­tered out.

New York Times

Amer­i­can tech com­pa­nies po­si­tioned them­selves as en­ti­ties that brought pos­i­tive change by con­nect­ing peo­ple and spread­ing in­for­ma­tion. But per­cep­tions are chang­ing as their tools are used to un­der­mine democ­racy.

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