Editor's Choice

Don't Be Evil: How Big Tech Betrayed Its Founding Principles—and All of Us

Dylan Schleicher

November 22, 2019


Every page of Rana Foroohar’s Don’t Be Evil is a revelation, a reinforcement for the ideas that have made our economy sustainable in the past, and have been largely discarded in the disruption Silicon Valley has spread throughout our economy.

DontBeEvil-web.jpgDon't Be Evil: How Big Tech Betrayed Its Founding Principles—and All of Us by Rana Foroohar, Currency

Earlier this week, I was looking for quotes to put on a giving tree bulletin board at my kids’ school, and amongst the quotes I found online from figures like Lao Tzu, Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill, Anne Frank, and Robert Ingersoll, there was one that stood out, one that seemed out of place among the others: “By giving people the power to share, we're making the world more transparent.” That this quote, from Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerburg, focused on the supposed magnanimity of his for-profit company—one of the richest and most powerful the world has ever known—is only the first obvious problem with the quote. A more egregious one is the idea that Facebook has actually made the world more transparent, which is complete and utter nonsense. 

There is no more clear or cogent case against that kind of nonsense than Rana Foroohar’s new book, Don’t Be Evil. The book takes its title from Google and its old, unofficial motto:  

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.

That statement is unequivocally at odds with the image Big Tech likes to portray. The industry has always painted its intentions in a utopian hue: to connect humanity, democratize access to information, to disrupt an old order of entrenched power and usher in a new, more equitable and innovative age. It is important to note that evil is not necessarily baked into the technology itself, but as Foroohar notes, into the predominant business plan of Big Tech—in this case, Google. To understand why she would make such a contention, she brings us all the way back to the company’s origin story. Larry Page and Sergei Brin developed Google in academia. It is a setting in which publishing one’s findings is the norm and the expectation, but to the consternation of many at Stanford, they adhered to an entrepreneurial mindset and kept their research mostly private and proprietary for later profitization, even while relying on Stanford’s massive computing power—eventually commandeering the entire university’s bandwidth after they burned through their own department’s—they needed to crawl the internet and build the PageRank algorithm that became the backbone of their search engine. Rather than an open source offering of search based on the internet’s version of academic citations—hyperlinks—that you might expect of an institution of higher learning, Page and Brin took their idea to market and sold advertising around it. It is telling, however, that in one of the few papers they did publish in their time at Stanford, Page and Brin claimed that selling advertising would inherently corrupt the search engine. As they saw it: 

“We expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased toward the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers. Since it is very difficult even for experts to evaluate search engines, search engine bias is particularly insidious.”

That is, of course, the business model they built their company’s great wealth and power upon, and today, “Ninety percent of the searches conducted everywhere on the planet are conducted on … Google.” It is a business model that runs on what Foroohar calls the new “oil” of the economy—information, networks, and user data. And this is, increasingly, not just the business model of new technologies, but one that has bled into the rest of the new economy that tech companies sit on top of as the key power brokers and beneficiaries of the digital age. Foroohar explains how, since the rise of Big Tech… 

Data is the fuel for growth in multiple industries, from manufacturing to retail to financial services. But unlike other assets, it doesn’t necessarily fuel job growth, but rather, profit growth. And those profits tend to be diverted directly into executives’ and shareholders’ wallets. A 2018 J.P. Morgan study found that most of the money brought back to the United States from overseas bank accounts following the Trump tax cuts went directly into stock buybacks that enrich the wealthiest people and companies.

As others latch on to their surveillance capitalist business model through the “internet of things,” Big Tech is entering traditional industries—from finance and healthcare to entertainment and automobiles—at break-neck pace: 

Big Tech, in other words, doesn’t just want to become a leader in one sector. It wants to become the platform for everything, the operating system for your life.

It is a business model that is predicated on protecting what they consider their own proprietary information, which—in addition to algorithms, which we’ll get to later—is in fact the data generated by all of us and hoovered up by these companies. Rather than innovating themselves, they commodify and monetize the innovations of others, from the start-ups they swallow up to the artists (authors, musicians, filmmakers, etc.) whose copyright they infringe upon. They bully publishers to make their content available for free, while they reap the benefit in advertising dollars that come in from that content being accessible on their platforms. Traditional new outlets are left to scramble for the scraps as local newspapers are shuffled into the holdings of ever larger conglomerates or shutter their operations. 

One of the less investigated aspects of what Silicon Valley giants have been up to is the financial risk they are exposing themselves—and all of us—to in their quest for even higher profits, “issuing their own cheap debt and using it to buy up higher-yielding debt of other firms.” It is akin to the financial engineering that big banks were engaged in in the lead up to the Great Recession. As she dug deeper into the issue, she found that Big Tech now simply has “too much money chasing too little value.”

In the search for both higher returns and for something to do with all their money, they were, in a way, acting like banks, taking large anchor positions in new corporate debt offerings and essentially underwriting them in the way that J.P. Morgan or Goldman Sachs might. But—it’s worth noting—since such companies are not regulated like banks, it is difficult to track exactly what they are buying, how much they are buying, and what the market implications might be. […] In addition to being the most profitable and least regulated industry on the planet, the Silicon Valley giants had also become systemically crucial within the marketplace, holding assets that—if sold or downgraded—could topple the markets themselves. Hiding in plain sight was an amazing discovery: Big Tech, not big banks, was the new too-big-to-fail industry.

“By giving people the power to share,” Zuckerberg says, “we're making the world more transparent.” As Foroohar notes, this systemic risk generates enormous profits for those who own a share of these companies, but not much benefit for ordinary people who own a stake in the overall economy working for them, or looking to actually actually find work in an increasingly automated, intangible economy. What is often billed as the creation of a more dynamic economy is extremely dangerous territory for most workers.

As Big Tech has risen, early stage venture capital and the number of start-ups they fund have plummeted—taking the job creation that our economy depends on right along with them.

As they stifle job creation, they also keep the wages of their own workers down by operating like cartels and agreeing to no-poaching agreements that keep employees in place. In a very real and crucial way, Big Tech keep us all in place—in front of our screens—by employing slot-machine-like mechanisms that keep us hooked on their platforms. Rather than “giving people the power to share,” or empowering individuals to connect, they are fostering addiction and compelling users to give them not only their attention, but to hand over—usually unwittingly—their personal data. And if data is the new oil of the economy, as Foroohar makes the case it is, that is the most lucrative commodity of all. 

The race to capture consumer attention is the focal point of capitalism today. Of all the states of mind that companies and brands seek to induce, addiction is by far the most desirable.

We essentially carry history’s most sophisticated sales device, armed with the most psychologically persuasive tools and algorithms, around in our pockets every day. Foroohar’s last book, about the financial sector’s activities leading up to the Great Recession, was called Makers and Takers, but the titles of her two books, in my mind, are interchangable. 

In many ways, as she explains throughout the book, the big questions about and existential threats posed by Big Tech is identical to that posed by the big banks of that era.

Big Tech and big banks are also similar in the opacity and complexity of their operations. The algorithmic use of data is like the complex securitization done by the world’s too-big-to-fail banks in the subprime era. Both are understood by industry experts who can use information asymmetry to hide risks and and the nefarious things that companies profit from, like dubious political ads.

Just as deregulation of financial institutions was sold as an opportunity for innovation, but ended in increased concentration of wealth and risk, political clout and privilege, and a lack of any real accountability, “the supposedly decentralized Internet economy has spawned a handful of ruthless oligopolies that have begun to use their power to undermine start-up growth, job creation, and labor markets.” And in a final twist of the knife, the disruption to labor markets and local economies that these firms (and too much business literature) have so lauded over the last decade has created an even greater need for the tax revenue these firms actively avoid providing.

When called to hearings before the the world regulatory agencies and elected bodies, Big Tech CEOs (or, more likely, the legal teams and paid representatives they send in their place) like to pretend that this is all too complicated to be understood by us layfolk and our elected representatives, and we just have to trust them as they destroy jobs, get us addicted to their technology, and allow their platforms to be used for misinformation and propaganda campaigns—that it is in fact good for us and humanity to let them do so. Facebook has said that if the government reins them in by, for example, thwarting in any way their attempts to launch their own digital currency, that the Chinese will beat us to it. It is, they propose, a matter of economic competition, of national security and pride. These statements come even as they and other Big Tech firms shift more and more of their profits into offshore tax havens, gutting the government of the resources it needs to fund the kind of innovative research that the entire digital economy is built upon—the kind that their very own companies are built upon.

Consider that $1 trillion in wealth has been parked offshore by America’s largest, most IP rich firms. A trillion is no small sum. That’s an eighteenth of America’s annual gross domestic product, much of which was garnered from products and services made possible by core government-funded research and innovators. Yet U.S. citizens have not gotten their fair share of the investment because of tax offshoring.

Foroohar doesn’t just point out the many transgressions coming out of Silicon Valley, and the challenges the pose to us as a society, she also offers some potential solutions. And the first is the need for some clear, deep thinking on big issues. 

The shift from a tangible to an intangible economy—one that makes the industrial revolution look relatively minor by comparison—should trigger deep thinking about a host of big topics: digital property rights, trade regulations, privacy laws, antitrust rules, liability rules, free speech, the legality of surveillance, the implications of the algorithmic disruption of work and labor markets, the ethics of artificial intelligence, and the health and well-being of users of digital technology.

She suggests a “national commission on the future of data and digital technology” to begin a public conversation and bipartisan debate on these very public. She argues that we should have the right to own our own data, and that it should perhaps be held in public institutions with public oversight rather than walled-off in private gardens available only for the richest and most powerful companies to profit off of. Critical to ensuring competition, we should revisit antitrust policy, and consider whether we should allow companies that own such powerful networks to compete directly on them, or whether they should be regulated more akin to a public utility or the railroad companies of the original Gilded Age. 

The internet is, of course, the railroad of our times—an essential piece of public infrastructure over which much of the world’s commerce and communication is now conducted.

One of my favorite ideas is that Big Tech firms should be required to submit their algorithms to an independent audit:

I would like to see a digital consumer protection bureau, with tough rules around discrimination by algorithms, and a system for ensuring individuals can access and understand how their personal data is being used, as we can with credit scores today.

Every page of Rana Foroohar’s Don’t Be Evil is a revelation, a reinforcement for the ideas that have made our economy sustainable in the past, and have been largely discarded in the disruption Silicon Valley has spread throughout our economy.

“Consumer welfare,” rather than citizen welfare, is our primary concern. We assume that rising share prices signify something good for the economy as a whole, as opposed to merely increasing wealth for those who own them. In this process, we’ve moved away from being a market economy to being … a “market society,” obsessed with profit maximization in every aspect of our lives. […] 

Now, with the rise of the surveillance capitalism practiced by Big Tech, we ourselves are maximized for profit.

“By giving people the power to share,” says Zuckerberg,” we're making the world more transparent.” First of all, we have always had the power to share in our deliciously visceral, physical world and analog lives, in a way that enriched our lives rather than addicted us to technology. Not only do people hide behind anonymity and false identities online to spread misinformation and propaganda that makes the world decidedly less transparent, the rules are completely unknown. The “pretty crazy idea,” as Zuckerberg put it, that Russia “influenced the election in any way” by weaponizing Facebook and other tech platforms in now pretty well proven. As Faroohar notes: 

Apparently, they have no difficulty tracking every purchase we make, every ad we click on, and every news article we read, but to weed out articles from sketchy conspiracy websites, block anti-Semitic comments, or spot nerarious Russian bots is still too onerous a task.

As is, apparently, allowing companies to change their Facebook profiles to their legal name. When trying to change our company name on Facebook after launching our new website and brand on August 19th, it took us three months of constant communication and requests—from us and our customers—to Facebook’s algorithms to get it done, and even then we had to settle for the imperfect compromise of Porchlight Books their algorithms allowed rather than our easily verifiable legal name.

I fear it’s going to take much more than three months, and much more of the public’s insistence and involvement, to get Big Tech to truly answer to all of us and meet the diverse interests of a pluralistic society rather than only their shareholders’ interests. But, in a world distracted by shiny devices and viral disinformation, Rana Foroohar’s Don’t Be Evil helps us see more clearly what that could look like.

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of Porchlight since 2003. After beginning in shipping and receiving, he moved through customer service (with some accounting on the side) before entering into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the marketing and editorial aspects of the company. Outside of work, you’ll find him volunteering or playing basketball at his kids’ school, catching the weekly summer concert at the Washington Park Bandshell, or strolling through one of the many other parks or green spaces around his home in Milwaukee (most likely his own gardens). He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.

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