In 1998, in an academic paper titled “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin described how their project, which they had named Google, worked. Until Page and Brin published, their work had been shrouded in secrecy, much to the consternation of the Stanford faculty. However, their mentor was eventually able to convince Page and Brin to publish some of their work—it was an academic project, after all—and the two relented.
In the paper, Page and Brin outlined how search could be monetized—via advertising—and noted the danger of such a funding model, writing, “The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users.” Indeed, such a model lead to what the two labeled “search engine bias” a phenomenon they identified as “particularly insidious.”
Financial Times writer Rana Foroohar includes the Google origin story in her scathing indictment of the two tech titans and, at least in her opinion, the road of moral compromise its two founders traversed to essentially take over the internet. Through stunning self-deception and adherence to a self-serving principle that “information wants to be free,” it wasn’t long before Google’s two founders succumbed to investor pressure and embraced an ideology of “data exists to be monetized.”
The Internet Problem
The title of Foroohar’s book is Don’t Be Evil: How Big Tech Betrayed Its Founding Principles—and All of Us, a pithy nod to the company’s early motto. Foroohar is not only trying to be clever, she believes that “don’t be evil” was Google’s model from the outset because Page and Brin knew the “insidious” potential of the technology they had created. Writes Foroohar, “When Google advised its employees not to be evil, it did so because it knew full well that evil was more than a powerful temptation. Evil was baked into the business plan.”
Capitulating to the demands of investors to monetize by employing the advertising business plan they had previously denounced was merely their first sin. As Foroohar tells it, the company copied goto.com and Yelp, and cut off traffic to foundem.com, funneling users to Google’s results instead. This trend of big companies getting bigger and cutting off the ability of smaller firms to operate is at the heart of what Foroohar sees as the “the internet problem.”
Indeed, Foroohar is at her best when she is making the case against Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others based on their anticompetitive practices and showing how the subsequent market concentration is stifling competition and hurting innovation. She also compares the internet of today to railways of the late 1800s. At that time, there was significant market concentration and a number of industrialists who both owned the railroads and then did business on them, giving preference to their own services and keeping competitors off their networks. That is almost exactly the same thing Google did with both Yelp and foundem.com.
As a fix, Foroohar suggests regulations that would ban companies from conducting business on platforms they own. She also calls for a digital sovereign wealth fund to which Big Tech firms contribute and the money is used to educate a workforce that seems to be on a collision course with obsolescence—at the hands of Big Tech, of course.
While some of her proposals appear more legitimate than others—a global flat sales tax seems like a pipe dream, whereas data being valued on firm’s financial statements carries some merit—her list of proposals is as creative as it is thorough, and a good starting point for anyone serious about moving beyond merely griping about Big Tech and actually wanting to start thinking about reasonable solutions.
However, despite the urgency Foroohar brings to her writing about Big Tech and the necessity of breaking up Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others, she is perhaps a bit credulous regarding a significant aspect of the Big Tech debate. On the “addictive” nature of social media and the negative cognitive side effects that addiction can produce, two distinct schools of thought have emerged.
There are those like Foroohar, who believe the situation is bad enough that government action is necessary. This group also includes Jonathan Taplin, author of Move Fast and Break Things, former Googler Tristan Harris and his nonprofit The Center For Humane Technology, and even Republican Sem. Josh Hawley and his proposed SMART Act.
The other school of thought believes that tech “addiction” is a personal issue, so people simply need to exercise more self-control and not let themselves become addicted by Silicon Valley’s latest offerings. It could be said that Nir Eyal, author of Indestractible, and Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism, best represent this group. On some level this is the default position of many, especially people of faith. In this view, the onus is on individuals to moderate their tech use, not on Google and Facebook.
While there isn’t space in this article to discuss the merits of either position, it is clear from the totality of Foroohar’s argument that she believes social media platforms are addictive, intentionally designed to be so, and cause cognitive harm in the form of increased anxiety and depression. She then uses the claim that modern tech is addictive in her case for regulating Google, Facebook, and others.
In the book, Foroohar tells of her son, who racked up a $900 iTunes bill playing an online “freemium” soccer game on his iPhone after school and how, through more intentional parental discipline, her son quit the game and was no longer addicted to it. Although she tries to use the addictive nature of tech to explain why there needs to be regulation, her success in mitigating the negative effects of tech in her son’s life reveals that, on a personal level, individuals can choose to use Silicon Valley’s products more wisely. In that case, one begins to wonder whether regulation really is necessary after all.
Becoming the Villain
That inconsistency aside, Foroohar expertly and succinctly lays out the problems with Big Tech, drawing on her decades of experience covering the industry for the Financial Times. As noted before, her solutions are generally practical, varied, and for the most part modest.
And perhaps her most prescient ideas are already proving to be true. Foroohar retells Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress in the wake of the 2016 election and highlights a photograph that caught a glimpse of Zuckerberg’s notes telling him to mention China when questioned about Facebook’s monopolistic characteristics. Foroohar calls out Google and Facebook for crying “China” when pressure picks up against them:
Big Tech firms have responded to the growing public concern about privacy and anticompetitive business practices by playing to a long-standing American fear: It’s us versus China. Companies like Google and Facebook are increasingly trying to portray themselves to regulators and politicians as national champions, fighting to preserve America’s first-place standing in a video-game-like, winner-take-all battle for the future against the evil Middle Kingdom.
Recently Zuckerberg, in a speech at Georgetown University, portrayed the issue of free speech in just such a light. Said Zuckerberg, “There’s no guarantee these values [freedom of expression] will win out. A decade ago, almost all of the major internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top 10 are Chinese.”
While his speech made several good points about freedom of expression in the age of platform capitalism, the way he framed the issue—in terms of American values rather than international human rights—has caused some to wonder if his intent is genuine, or if he is doing exactly what Foroohar predicted he would do: make China into the enemy he needs them to be for Facebook to remain intact.
Foroohar is also right to identify Big Tech’s “nefarious side effects” as perhaps the major economic issue facing Congress in the next five years. Indeed, it would be hard to believe that at least a number of Big Tech’s main challenges wouldn’t be resolved in either president Trump’s second term or by whichever administration takes over in 2020. That’s especially if the next president is Elizabeth Warren, who has repeatedly voiced her concern with Big Tech in general and Facebook specifically.
If Foroohar has her way, it won’t take that long. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other former darlings of the American economy would be broken up tomorrow. Foroohar cites management guru Peter Drucker who said, “In every major economic downturn in U.S. History the villains have been the heroes during the previous boom.” If that holds true, Big Tech’s days may be numbered.