hacking of the
a seminal event.
It has caused
trust in Facebook
What consequences does that have for
business? It’s ultimately going to become
a threat to business itself, where you could
see businesses spreading misinformation
about rivals. When misinformation flows
so easily, there’s no telling where it stops.
Re-establishing some common basis for
fact is a business necessity as well as a
Can you see corporations becoming
players in this effort to restore truth?
I don’t know how they can do that precisely.
Nobody has a good handle on how we can
restore good basis for fact. But I do think
that business is going to play an important
role in shaping the regulatory environment.
Every company that is not GAFA — be it
Walmart or Microsoft or other massive
players — will attempt to reassert some
control over this economy. The wars over
antitrust are going to be intense and they’re
going to cross-cut in very interesting
ways. I’m especially interested in seeing
how larger players who still have political
muscle will maneuver. What steps does
Walmart take in response to Amazon’s
hegemony? It’s hard to imagine that they
won’t be aggressive at some point.
What advice do you give to people who
work in the tech sector? I think tech
workers need to feel that they’ve pushed
their companies to behave in the most
ethical manner. When people ask me
whether they should go to work for one of
the big companies, I’m always agnostic.
The companies are so powerful that having
smart, well-intentioned people within who
think in well-rounded ways is important.
But it’s also important that those people not
gravitate toward the center and that they
continue to start up their own companies.
The world needs a pluralistic marketplace.
What we don’t want is a concentration of
brains as well as a concentration of power. Δ
they’re going to be making bad human
But I’m loath to shift too much of an
ethical burden onto these companies. I do
want the leaders trained in ethics, but
capitalism is what capitalism is. It’s hard
to imagine sacrificing profit for the sake of
the greater good. That’s where government
policy comes in.
So regulation would enable these
companies to keep doing what they do,
but with less damage. It’s gobsmacking
that there is no comprehensive law in the
country protecting data. That is step one:
legislation creating a new regulatory body.
My desire is to see a regulatory regime
that reviews issues of surveillance and
monopoly as intertwined and understands
that surveillance is the mechanism
by which monopolies protect their
The problem is so big and pervasive that
there’s no single silver bullet. Regulation
is a necessity, but I think cultural change
among consumers is also a necessity. There
needs to be comprehensive social change.
You’ve advocated creation of a federal
data-protection agency that would not
only guard consumers’ privacy but also
protect the free flow of information
on the internet from undue corporate
influence. How would that work?
Europeans have pointed the way with a lot
of what they’ve done, though there are parts
of their model that I dislike. I’m not a fan
of the right to be forgotten, which I think
is contrary to a lot of our First Amendment
beliefs. But I do think individuals should be
able to exert much greater control over the
use of their own data. It’s not simple to set
up, but we could figure it out.
Increasingly, we’ve seen the public losing
faith in institutions and turning on them.
Is such a backlash against big tech
inevitable? What might trigger it? The
Russian hacking of the elections is a pretty
seminal event. It has caused trust in Facebook
to diminish. I think that’s just an early
warning sign to these companies. Ultimately,
big institutions fall out of favor and lose the
public’s trust. That’s pretty much just part of
the cycles of American history.
You note that 62% of Americans now
get their news from social media and
describe how that has wrecked the news
media’s economic model, creating one in
which misinformation can spread virally.
up serving monopolism. The internet has
the possibility of being as democratic as
promised, and it comes with this dream of
tying everybody together as one unit. But
that impulse ultimately is what points
it toward monopoly and conformism. Not
inevitably, but it points in that direction.
You write that the tech giants’
concentration of power serves to
“squash diversity of opinion and taste.”
Will that ultimately stifle the sort of
innovation that led to their rise? No,
because these companies spend so much
on R&D and their machines are always
teaching themselves new things. But
I think it kind of squashes innovation in
the economy as a whole. Capital flows to
a bunch of well-established companies
as opposed to being seeded throughout
the economy, where it would disperse
innovation to a whole bunch of new
firms. It’s not healthy for an economy to
have so much control concentrated in
a few companies.
The problem is the way these giant tech
companies exert control over markets,
which can be bad for consumers and bad
for the firms that depend upon these
platforms. They have the ability to pick
winners and losers. And as they continue
to grow, their own products will be the
winners on their platforms. The instinct
for Google and Amazon to award their own
products the highest placement is almost
irresistible. Facebook, as it produces more
and more original video, will be giving
that heavier weight in its algorithms. The
monopolistic effects of these platforms will
end up crushing the entities that depend on
these platforms. We see that already with
journalism, which has come to depend so
heavily upon Facebook and Google.
A lot of the negative effects of
technological innovation described in
your book seem to be unintentional
side effects. Do we need a new approach
to teaching business ethics and how
to use innovations more responsibly?
It’s a real shortcoming in the computer
science curriculum and engineering
curriculum more generally. Engineers
and programmers are taught how to
make efficient systems but rarely do they
understand the human component
of the systems, the ethical and political
dimension of what they build. And so
there’s an inherently large amount of
impactful decisions that these companies
make. And if it’s only about efficiency,