The biggest risk facing the rise of tech giants such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon isn’t privacy, it’s this.
If you fear the conversation about the loss of privacy, which has brought companies such as Facebook to the forefront of our collective psyche, then this should terrify you.
You’ve likely seen news coverage about the back and forth between Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren–who ran ads calling for the breakup of Facebook, Amazon, and Google–and Facebook, where those ads were placed.
Facebook’s initial response was reflexive, but still very telling–it took down Warren’s ads. Instead of seeing Warren’s ads calling for dismantling the tech giants, you’d see the message, “This ad was taken down because it goes against Facebook’s advertising policies.”
It’s not clear whether that response was triggered by an algorithm or a Facebook employee. However, in either case, and with those 12 short words, Facebook just showed why it’s time to rethink the risk of continuing to allow tech giants to lay a foundation for the future on entirely self-serving agendas.
There’s not much doubt that shutting Warren down was the absolutely worst thing Facebook could have done. That response only served to prove the threats that Warren has spelled out in a manifesto published in Medium:
“Three companies have vast power over our economy and our democracy. Facebook, Amazon, and Google,” read the ads, which Warren’s campaign had placed Friday. “We all use them. But in their rise to power, they’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field in their favor.”
Facebook’s response also speaks to the finely tuned antibodies that evolve within any sufficiently large organization to insure its survival at any cost. We can talk all we want about the value of innovation and how critical it is to a large company, but the first priority of any large organization (especially one that is public and accountable to stock holders) is to destroy anything that threatens it. This ends up being woven so tightly into the organization’s DNA that only a direct nuclear hit can dislodge it.
Most often these innovation antibodies mount the equivalent of an anaphylactic shock, the human immune system’s out of control response that can cause a life-threatening allergic reaction
Granted, Facebook did a quick about face by reinstating the ads and then claiming that it wants to encourage pubic debate.
All’s forgiven, right?
Hardly. Warren has wisely tapped into a collective social chord of resonance that desperately needs to be addressed in the clear. Don’t expect her to stop striking the harp anytime soon.
Thanks For The Memories
It’s been said that the seeds of failure are planted in the arrogance of success. When I look at how mighty incumbents fall it is most often because they tried to keep the past alive just a little bit longer.
Facebook, much like any trailblazer, has needed the ability to justify and invest in building out the infrastructure and foundational footings for social media. But that era is now coming to an end. The business models and the use cases that worked so well to build social media will not work well to evolve it.
The fact that Facebook is finding itself in the crosshairs so often is a sign of a maturing market in which innovation is desperately needed to redefine the role and value of social media. Just take a look at Zuckerberg’s recent memo about the future of a privacy centered Facebook.
Warren’s vision shouldn’t surprise anyone; it’s been coming for some time.
I’ve written at length about the value and the danger of monopolies in tech before, and specifically regarding Facebook and Google.
In a prior Inc.com article I quote Jonathan Caplin, author of Move Fast and Break Things: How Google, Facebook and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, who, in a Salon interview said:
“It’s almost a cliche to point this out, but if data is the ‘new oil’ then what’s the difference between Google and the ‘old oil’ of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company that was broken in 1905 by Teddy Roosevelt?”
What we are witnessing today is something even more profound. It’s not only the inevitable rise to inordinate monopolistic power that tech giants such as Facebook, Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Amazon have, but also the rise of a more serious concern about the future of a society in which a few corporate behemoths dictate what’s right and wrong by imposing their values on society through their software.
Here’s the core of the issue. What Facebook, and pretty much what any company that has a strong presence in social media, is doing, is creating defacto social contracts that are as powerful as any law that has been agreed to through a sociopolitical debate and a constitutionally defined legislative process. We are creating amendments to the constitution through are tacit agreement to the terms and conditions of an app. You should recoil in horror at that last thought.
In fact, it’s even worse than that because these are rules that govern behavior without national borders since these are global companies.
The problem is that these global platforms, which allow us to connect, converse, and express influence for positive change, can also be used to shut us down by imposing arbitrary rules, procedures, and processes that ultimately end up embedding new values and social behaviors into software–behaviors and values that we are forced to use.
By the way, “forced” may sound like a powerful word here, but the reality is that few of us would give up the power of social media, mobile devices, and connectivity because it would severely limit our ability to function as productive people and employees. You might as well have made the case in 1911 that if you didn’t like the oil monopoly you could just use a horse and buggy, and heat your home with a wood-burning stove. It’s not coincidental that after the break up of Standard Oil both of these industries flourished as innovation accelerated dramatically.
While the thought of everything being legislated strikes chords of fear in many (including yours truly), the prospect of any one company being able to define what I can or cannot be exposed to is in many ways much more frightening and arbitrary.
We are entering an era of fake news and reality distortion in which greater public conversation and debate is more necessary than ever. The thought of a company, such as Facebook, unilaterally deciding to change its software and thereby unilaterally changing the way that we experience the world and express ourselves, flies in the face of that trend, and the demand by employees and citizens, for greater transparency and social discourse at every level.
If monopolies such as Standard Oil and AT&T were considered too dangerous to the future of a free market, competition, and innovation, then the power wielded by Facebook, Amazon, and Google takes that threat to an entirely new orbit by extending that danger well beyond the economic repercussions of a monopoly to its potential ability to shape the most fundamental values by which we live our lives.
This article was originally published on Inc.
Image credit: Pixabay
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.