Earlier this year, Sunil Rajaraman, the host of the Your Life in Silicon Valley podcast, asked his social media followers what questions he should put to an upcoming guest, a reporter who regularly covers Uber.
“How does it feel to have made your money and your career by shit talking one of the most transformative companies of our time?” an Uber employee suggested.
Around this same time, in Menlo Park, a Facebook friend attended an offsite during which one of the company’s execs was asked about the recent wave of negative press coverage.
The VP’s answer: “It’s not fair; the media is after us.”
Those of us who work in tech are such victims! We are so misunderstood! Why does the media only seem to focus on our missteps, rather than pay attention to our great innovations?
It’s true that “outsiders”—the media, policymakers, armchair philosophers on Twitter—often do get tech wrong. According to much of the narrative around our industry, tech workers are unempathetic brogrammers trying to squeeze every last bit of data from their users. Morals and ethics are sacrificed in the name of growth at all costs.
It’s also true that when your company is in the media’s crosshairs—as was the case with Uber two years ago, and Facebook now—you’re not given the benefit of the doubt. Conspiracy theories are plentiful, and even innocent actions—someone’s ad or video is taken down on Facebook, a reporter has a bad Uber ride—are then twisted to fit an overarching narrative of bad behavior.
But what can we expect when those of us in tech aren’t doing much to contribute to a more productive conversation—one that celebrates tech but also concedes that not everything we’ve done has been up to our mighty values and mission statements?
Rather, we tend to close ranks when our industry is criticized. We view an attack on Facebook’s handling of content moderation, for example, as something that might threaten all the legal protections given to platforms—and if we’re Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, or any other social platform, we tend to go silent. Rather than providing a more nuanced critique about what Facebook may be doing wrong (or right), we attack the outsiders as Luddites who want social media apps to remove all speech we don’t like or demand that platforms like Facebook should hire a million humans to moderate controversial content. We discredit the outsiders rather than admit their overarching point is directionally accurate (even if their solution is silly—which, yes, almost all solutions involving only human moderation are).
Take Elizabeth Warren’s plan to regulate the big tech companies. When she published her proposal—which ranged from reversing anticompetitive mergers to prohibiting tech platforms from participating in their own proprietary marketplaces—many in the industry immediately took to Twitter to deride Warren’s inability to understand tech. But she does understand it in broad strokes, and we should have seen her proposal for what it was—a not-right-but-not-crazy jumping-off point for a broader discussion about curbing Big Tech’s ceaseless expansion.
Because here is the reality: The vast majority of Americans don’t trust tech companies, and many want to see them reined in. But rather than choose to be a part of, and help shape these kinds of conversations, instead we undercut them from the start, zooming in on one particular erroneous or misguided detail, and leaning on that error to discredit the overall argument.
But at this point, it’s delusional to think that the industry is going to avoid increased oversight; attacking every criticism or proposal that comes from the outside isn’t going to stop the regulation train that’s hurtling toward us from D.C.
Some of the best ideas about how to sensibly regulate tech can probably be found in the Valley, where people understand that such solutions can have unintended consequences—that the companies really hurt by European-style privacy legislation, for example, might be early-stage startups rather than the big tech companies everyone loves to hate. Similarly, no one understands the incredibly difficult task of content moderation like the people who have to think through the relevant policy decisions every day—people who don’t speak up to critique or support other companies’ approaches, lest their own company gets dragged into the debate.
Personally, I would welcome regulation that aims to create a more level playing field. That could potentially be achieved through breakups of some of these companies, or by looking at how acquisitions are regulated. It isn’t good for our ecosystem—or for consumers—that startups are now so fixated on being acquired by the big tech companies, knowing that they will otherwise be quashed if they try to make it on their own.
Facebook has responded to calls for a breakup by arguing that separating Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram would weaken their ability to harness pooled resources to target issues like offensive content on their platforms. The core of that self-serving argument isn’t wrong—leveraging shared resources is a better way to target these problems. But let’s go further: Why not find a cross-industry approach to some of the issues that plague a lot of these companies? There is already a precedent for this, i.e., companies have already come together to tackle child sexual abuse photos and videos.
Leaving regulatory conversations entirely to the outside world (and the army of behind-the-scenes lobbyists for the big tech companies) will not ultimately serve our industry well. If we don’t want something we don’t like imposed on us, we should break ranks, speak up, and help shape our collective future.
Jessica Powell, former VP of communications for Google, is the author of The Big Disruption: A Totally Fictional but Essentially True Silicon Valley Story