There is hardly a more fitting time to write about Big Tech’s place in the world, as the bosses of the four major firms appear before the US Congress for a grilling. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Sundar Pichai (Alphabet) and Tim Cook (Apple) faced questions, as lawmakers considered their market dominance and whether there is need for tougher regulation to rein in the tech giants.
Principally, the session was intended to explore the claims that Big Tech companies have abused their considerable power to negate competition, and was an opportunity for the big bosses to defend themselves against those claims. Among that in question was Facebook’s acquisition of competitors, such as Instagram, the origin of some of Google’s content – possibly from smaller firms – whether Amazon mistreats its sellers, and whether rules on Apple’s App store benefited the company to the detriment of third-party developers.
Naturally these weren’t the only problems explored. Several Republicans attacked Zuckerberg for a perceived anti-conservative bias on social media – although Twitter boss Jack Dorsey was not present to face the same scrutiny. Accusations about the relationships with China were also added to the pot, by which point things had well and truly gone off the stated purpose of the event.
But for all the mudslinging and visceral disdain directed at the tech bosses, here is what I would’ve wanted to ask:
“Do you believe your size and market dominance are a force for positive impact in the world?”
For some time now, tech companies have buried their head in the sand about issues, and have failed to address their own shortcomings through reactive measures. By this point, the issues almost need no introduction – the hate speech, misinformation, data scraping, mental health implications and much more. But there must be a route in which tech companies positively take on these issues through long-term strategies that get to the route of the problem. Today we see some signs of hope.
Social media has allowed us to connect to people around the world instantaneously and communicate with mass audiences. As a result, misinformation and hate content have been identified as a major problem on social media sites. In the past year Twitter, having its own problems of harmful content, woke up to the issue, responding to public calls for action. Through a series of policy updates it has done more to remove and flag harmful posts – including those from President Trump. This included expanding its rules to cover speech that dehumanises people based on their religion, age, disability or disease, and a detailed policy to add warning labels to deep fakes and media manipulation. This comes in comparison to Facebook, which “didn’t do enough” in the past decade while its platform was used to spread hate and cause harm in Myanmar. However, recently both Twitter and Facebook removed a video from Trump that claimed children were “almost immune” to coronavirus, citing it violated their standards. It shows that tech companies are starting to understand the facilitating role they play, and that they have a hand in being accountable and taking responsibility.
The lack of diversity and inclusion (D&I) has also been a major concern in the tech industry, where there has been a significant gap between commitments, actions and results. However, Pinterest is leading the way, announcing in January 2020 that it has exceeded its employee diversity targets. Focused on driving inclusivity through product developments as well as through internal policies, Pinterest achieved increased hiring rates of full-time women engineers and under-represented minority groups. In contrast, some of the Big Tech companies are just paying lip service, and can learn a lot from Pinterest about building an inclusive environment internally and externally. Evidence shows the share of US technical employees who are black or Latinx at Google and Microsoft rose by less than 1% from 2014 to 2018, while Apple’s diversity figures remained stagnant.
Change is happening. As reputation suffers, Big Tech companies are beginning to accept and act upon their responsibilities. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, there were several significant donations made to BLM causes. Apple announced it will increase spending with black-owned suppliers as part of a $100 million racial equity and justice initiative, and Google-owned YouTube said it will spend $100 million to fund black artists. This action all comes as Amazon, Microsoft and Apple unveil ambitious environmental commitments. This year, Facebook launched its first Sustainability Report, acknowledging its role not only to operate responsibility, but to “support communities and make a bigger impact in the world”. The report focused heavily on environmental sustainability, as well as touching on creating jobs and developing a sustainable workforce. However, it did not include detail on data ethics or harmful content and the associated impact on social cohesion, for example.
And here is the problem. Tech companies have been nothing if not reactive to the societal problems they are involved in. Remove a post here, donate to a cause there. Solutions tend to be surface level, short term and symbolic. When facing criticism in 2018, Zuckerberg outlined the role of artificial intelligence in solving the platform’s “most vexing problem”. Critics noted that Zuckerberg both understated the problem and overstated AI’s abilities, with no plans for how or when this will happen. Nothing is reflecting a strong, robust and holistic strategy to ensure and deliver a positive impact in the world.
Given the enormous scale these companies have grown to – rightly or wrongly – there is a huge potential for good to be realised. Tech companies must begin not only to meet the standards of a responsible corporate citizen, but also to leverage assets and expertise for good. The companies that will thrive in this decade are the ones that mature fastest in terms of responsible business, and begin developing robust strategies to address the issues of today and the future.
Sarah Kehoe, Senior Researcher, London
Richard Phillips, Consultant, London