A real apology It consists of a sincere acknowledgment of wrongdoing, a display of empathetic remorse for why you did the harm and the harm you caused, and a promise of restitution by improving actions to make things right. Without follow-up, asking for forgiveness is not an apology, it is a hollow ploy for forgiveness.
That’s the kind of “forgiveness” we get from tech giants – an attempt to stifle malicious public relations and placate the bereaved, often without the systemic change necessary to avoid repeat problems. Sometimes it is delivered in a blog post. Sometimes it’s on an executive apology tour of media interviews. But rarely is it a change in the underlying structures of a business that caused the problem.
Unfortunately, the business models of technology companies often conflict with how we would like them to act. We want more privacy, but they thrive on data segmentation and personalization. We want control of our attention, but they subsist on stealing as much distraction as possible while showing us ads. We want safe, ethically built devices that don’t spy on us, but make their margins by making them wherever cheap with questionable standards of work and supervision. We want innovative technologies to be applied responsibly, but juicy government contracts and the appeal of China’s huge population compromise its morale. And we want to stick to what we need and what is best for us, but they monetize our desire for the latest token or status content through scheduled obsolescence and lock us into their platforms.
The result is that even if its leaders relentlessly wanted significant change to make up for their mistakes, their hands are tied by entrenched business models and the short-term focus of the quarterly earnings cycle. They apologize and return to the problem behavior. The Washington Post recently chronicled a dozen times that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized, but the social network continues to experience a fiasco after the fiasco. The tech giants will not improve enough on their own.
The threat of us abandoning ship should in theory keep the captains in line. But the tech giants have become basic services that many find it hard to imagine living without. How would you connect with friends? Find what you need? Do the work? Spend time? What hardware or software would you cuddle with in the moments when you feel lonely? We live our lives through technology, we have become addicted to its usefulness, and we fear withdrawal.
If there were principled alternatives to switch to, perhaps we could hold the giants accountable. But scalability, network effects, and aggregation of supply by distributors have led to near monopolies in these top utilities. The second place solution is often distant. What is the next best social network that serves as an identity and login platform that is not owned by Facebook? The next best premium mobile device and PC manufacturer behind Apple? The next best mobile operating system for the developing world beyond Google’s Android? The next best eCommerce hub other than Amazon? The next best search engine? Photo feed? Web hosting service? Global chat app? Spreadsheet?
One of the few technological kickbacks that led to a real flight was #DeleteUber. Discrimination in the workplace, shady business protocols, exploitation pricing, and more combined to spur the movement to ditch the road navigation app. But what was different here is that Uber riders in the US had a principled alternative to switch to without much trouble: Lyft. The result was that “Lyft benefited greatly from Uber’s troubles in 2018,” eMarketer forecasting director Shelleen Shum told USA Today in May. Uber missed the eMarketer projections while Lyft beat them, narrowing the gap between car services. And in the meantime, Uber’s CEO resigned while trying to review its internal policies.
This is why we need regulation that promotes competition by preventing massive mergers and giving users the right to interoperable data portability so they can easily switch from companies that treat them badly.
But in the absence of viable alternatives to the giants, leaving these pillars is inconvenient. After all, they are the ones who made us practically allergic to friction. Even after massive scandals, data breaches, toxic crops, and unfair practices, we largely stick to them to avoid the uncertainty of life without them. Even Facebook added 1 million monthly users in the US and Canada last quarter, despite seemingly all possible sources of concern. Tech users are not voting with their feet. We have shown that we can harbor ill will toward the giants as we reluctantly buy and use their products. Our influence to improve your behavior is greatly weakened by our loyalty.
Regulators have also failed to raise adequately. This year’s congressional hearings on Facebook and social media often turned into inanimate and informed questions, like how does Facebook make money if it doesn’t get paid? “Senator, we run ads,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg with a smile. At other times, politicians intended to score partisan points by imposing or promoting conspiracy theories about bias that they couldn’t make any real progress. A recent poll commissioned by Axios found that “In the past year, there has been a 15-point increase in the number of people who fear the federal government will not do enough to regulate large technology companies. 55% now share this concern. ”
When regulators intervene, their attempts can backfire. GDPR was supposed to help control the domain of Google and Facebook by limiting the way they could collect user data and making it more transparent. But the high cost of compliance simply hindered smaller players or drove them out of the market, while the giants had enough money to spend jumping through the government hoops. Google actually gained market share in ad tech and Facebook experienced the smallest loss, while the smallest ad tech companies lost 20 to 30 percent of their business.
Even the Honest Ads law, which was designed to bring political campaign transparency to internet platforms following election interference in 2016, has yet to be passed, despite support from Facebook and Twitter. There hasn’t been a meaningful discussion about blocking social media from acquiring your competitors in the future, let alone breaking Facebook’s Instagram and WhatsApp. Governments like the UK that forcibly seized documents related to Facebook’s machinations surrounding the Cambridge Analytica debacle provide some indication of willpower. But clumsy regulation could deepen the pits of incumbents and prevent disruptors from taking hold. We can’t rely on regulators to protect us enough from the tech giants right now.
Our hope inside
The best bet for change will come from the rank and file of these monolithic companies. With the war for talent raging, rock star employees can have a huge impact on products, and the compensation costs to keep them rising, tech giants are vulnerable to the opinions of their own staff. It is simply too costly and disjointed to have to recruit new highly-skilled workers to replace those on the run.
Google refused to renew a government contract after 4,000 employees applied and some gave up on using Project Maven’s artificial intelligence to attack lethal drone attacks. Change can even flow through the lines of the company. Many tech giants, including Facebook and Airbnb, have removed their forced arbitration rules for harassment disputes after Google did the same in response to 20,000 of its employees coming out in protest.
Facebook is desperately pushing an internal communication campaign to reassure employees that it is improving in the wake of damning press reports from the New York Times and others. TechCrunch released an internal memo from outgoing Facebook vice president of communications Elliot Schrage, in which he took the blame for recent problems, encouraged employees to avoid pointing fingers, and COO Sheryl Sandberg tried to reassure employees. saying “I know this has been a distraction at a time when all of you are working hard to close out the year, and I’m sorry.” These internal apologies could come with much more regret and real change than the ones that were paraded for the public.
And after years of relying on these tech workers to build the product we use every day, we must now trust that it will save us from them. It is a huge responsibility to move your talents when the impact is positive, or to commit to facing the business imperatives of your employers. We, as the public and the media, in turn must celebrate when they do what is right for society, even when it reduces shareholder value. If apps abuse us or improperly steal our attention, we must stay away from them.
And we must accept that shaping the future for the collective good can be inconvenient for the individual. There is an opportunity here to not only complain or wish, but to build a social movement that holds the tech giants accountable for delivering the change they have promised time and again.
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