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“Vitriol” Towards Net Giants Was an Unexpected Theme of Techonomy 2017

Roger McNamee: "99 and 44/100ths percent ignored." Photo credit: Paul Sakuma

“I don’t understand all the vitriol.”

So said a major investor and banker to me about the seemingly endless condemnations of the net giants, especially Facebook, emerging from both the conference stage and the audience at Techonomy 2017. And it’s true that many at the event were angry. What was surprising to me—even after recently writing my own worried article about Amazon, Facebook, and Google—was not the level of worry but the focus. Speakers and attendees were not just focused on Russian electoral manipulation. There also was a broadly held sense that Facebook is unwilling to accept responsibility for the power it holds.

It has seemingly overnight become acceptable to tar the net giants with a broad brush, on the grounds that as socially damaging interactions abound, the companies have been insufficiently transparent about how they and their algorithms work, unresponsive to the concerns of governments and security and privacy advocates, and are in general, haughty and aloof.

It’s true that we at Techonomy had programmed a number of sessions with the intent of exploring the growing concerns about the power of giant internet companies. But we were nonetheless surprised by the emerging outrage. Introducing one panel, I felt it worth noting that I still consider Facebook, which I wrote a book about, to have a net positive impact on society, even as the negatives continue to accumulate. And for the record, I do not believe the company has sufficiently addressed the rising concerns or shown itself to take them seriously enough at the corporate or Zuckerberg level. We tried to get the company to the conference to speak for itself, to no avail.

The most vehement denunciation of Facebook came from Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor and sometime friend of both Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg, who on one panel essentially blamed Facebook for the election of Donald Trump. His bigger point, though, was about the perniciousness of an advertising-based business model that is agnostic in how it is used and incents both Facebook and troublemakers of various kinds to foster fear and anger on the platform.

McNamee said onstage that he had tried to express his concerns directly to Zuckerberg and Sandberg: “It was, I guess, 10 days before Mark was on stage here last year that I sent a memo to him and Sheryl Sandberg with a list of 14 events that I had observed in calendar 2016, of third parties using Facebook to harm the powerless. The most important hypothesis I had was that the election had been manipulated and I thought there was a really serious problem. They treated it like it was a PR issue. To say they were dismissive would not be 100 percent accurate, but it would be about 99 and 44/100ths percent accurate.” (Of course, it was only a year ago onstage at Techonomy 2016 that Zuckerberg said he thought it a “crazy idea” that fake news on Facebook had affected the election.)

One journalist at the conference said that he had spent time earlier in the week at Tim O’Reilly’s Foo Camp event, and that anger and concern about the net giants was rampant there, too. On the flip side, many at Techonomy also noted that despite the concerns of the elite and innumerable pundits and journalists, users of Facebook themselves seem to have shown little concern thus far.

Mark Anderson, Rebecca MacKinnon, Peder Jungck and David Kirkpatrick discuss the downside of the networked world.
Photo credit: Paul Sakuma

On another panel, “Internet Under Attack,” longtime tech writer and consultant Mark Anderson of Strategic News Service, a close China observer, responded to a question about how likely it is that moles from other countries’ governments, especially China, are working inside our great tech companies already. “100 percent,” Anderson replied with no hesitation. If he’s right, that could become an issue down the road.

One senior advertising executive who has dealt extensively with all the internet giants even suggested that we hold an entire conference on the topic of how society should respond to them. There’s no question that the companies must explain themselves to the public and expose their leaders to questions by outsiders. Zuckerberg owes the world a transparent explanation of his company’s direction, ethos, and activities, as does Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet/Google.

From that investor’s perspective, though, there is no consumer harm, so in general no cause for government to take action against Facebook, Google—or Amazon for that matter. That was generally also the stance of Mark Mahaney, internet industry analyst at RBC Capital Markets, who appeared on a session I moderated the opening afternoon entitled “Reckoning with the New Hegemonists.” Mahaney said he saw as much cause to break up Walmart as Amazon––meaning not much, and noted that the market had taken care of dominant internet companies of the past—Yahoo, for example—and would likely do so again.

Nonetheless, the vitriol was undeniable. At Techonomy 2017 we learned that challenging and questioning the motives and impact of tech companies and innovators has become fair game in a way it has not been in the past. The Russian interference in the U.S. election seems to have opened a Pandora’s box that is not closing anytime soon. While the pace of digital transformation is unlikely to slow, the lesson here is that any company creating technologies that can change peoples’ lives had better carefully think through the ramifications. That would include AI innovators, Internet of Things pioneers, self-driving car advocates, VR visionaries, and many others.

What happens next in this saga will be fascinating. We will watch it closely here at Techonomy.

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