Google, Amazon, and Facebook don’t deserve the backlash (well, maybe Facebook does)
The mainstream press has turned on big tech. Don Tapscott says the new lords of a “digital feudal age” grow fat off our data and give nothing in return. The NYT writes about the “frightful five” and The American Spectator refers to “Our Evil Tech Overlords”.
These are all exciting headlines, but are they true? Is big tech evil or are these firms actually providing value? Well, it depends on exactly which company you’re talking about. To help give discredit where it’s due, here are the three most fearsome tech firms, rated by evilness.
I’ll give you Facebook. Facebook is the most maligned of all the tech giants, and rightly so. The social media giant stores everything you post, all the contacts from your phone, your pictures, every message you’ve ever sent, your “likes”, and all the apps you’ve connected to your account. They track your location and have access to your webcam and microphone, and use all this data in order to sell your attention to advertisers. Facebook is continually warned and sued by governments that their policies break privacy laws. The most recent example was Canada’s privacy commissioner asking the Federal Court of Canada to open a hearing into what it says are Facebook’s numerous violations of Canada’s federal privacy laws.
Targeted advertising is not, in itself, evil. But Facebook crosses a line when they engineer their products to be as distracting, addictive, and attention-controlling as possible. 60 Minutes calls it “brain hacking” and it’s bad for everyone.
Facebook also does little to prevent third-party shenanigans on its platform, creating a playground for bad actors of all kinds. Just this week it came to light that facial recognition app Clearview.ai was being used by Toronto police to identify people from a single photo. Clearview has a database of billions of images scraped from the open web – many of them from Facebook or other Facebook owned sites such as Instagram, Messenger or WhatsApp.
In addition, Facebook has allowed: fake news to run rampant; Cambridge Analytica to harvest raw data from 87 million profiles; Russian hackers to sow discord in the last US presidential election; and military leaders in Myanmar to incite genocide against the Rohingya minority.
What does the social network give us in return? A digital rolodex and a way to share pictures. It’s nice to stay in touch with friends and family, but given Facebook’s other activities, it all starts to feel like a hostage situation. The critics are right about this one: Facebook is evil.
People seem to think Amazon is a kind of retail Death Star that bullies its workers, other retailers, and even governments. But if you break it down and compare Amazon to other big companies, it’s not evil, just good at its job.
The biggest complaint against Amazon is that it treats its workers poorly. Actually, Amazon has raised wages for its factory workers a good deal above the legal minimum. In fact Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders has praised them for their wage policies! They’re not the best jobs in the world, but a good choice for a lot of people.
Critics say Amazon is laying waste to the retail landscape by undercutting both brick-and-mortar stores and the sellers on Amazon’s platform. Ruthless? Perhaps. But this is precisely what every other big retail business does, from grocery chains to Walmart. Welcome to capitalism.
It is true that Amazon shops around for the lowest tax rates and even squelched a proposed municipal tax in Seattle by threatening to roll back its operations there. But this isn’t evil. It’s up to governments to make good rules and enforce them.
Amazon is big, it’s nowhere near a monopoly. And while its rise has hurt some retailers, it has provided a platform for many other small and medium businesses to expand.
But the biggest benefits Amazon has created are for consumers by providing unparalleled convenience and choice at a low price. As an op-ed in the New York Times said this week; The trouble with breaking Up Amazon? Its online store is so good. Despite bad press, customers love the company. Over 100 million Americans subscribe to Prime, and that number is growing fast. Amazon isn’t evil; it’s just really good at capitalism.
Google knows everything that Facebook knows about you, and more. It’s recorded every search query, and, if tracking is on, your every move. Want to see where you’ve been for the past ten years? Click here.
When we look at the world through our browser, Google decides what we see. Because of this enormous power, Google is probably capable of more evil than any other tech company.
But that doesn’t mean Google is evil. They’ve had no scandals over data breaches or foreign election interference. Nobody’s heard of any teens being cyber-bullied on Google+. Despite a worried press, Google’s record is admirably clean. Facebook and Google are both spying on you. The difference is that Google isn’t telling.
Google may be harvesting our data, but it’s doing great work with it. I recently took a road trip to PEI and Google improved my experience at every turn. Maps made sure I didn’t get lost and popped up to warn me before I hit a traffic jam. Even the ads Google served me were useful. I arrived in town late, impatient children in tow, Google’s sponsored ads had me booked into a hotel in minutes. I benefitted, the hotel benefitted, Google benefitted. Cost to me: zero dollars.
Google is enormously powerful and may one day turn to the dark side. But for now, it’s still making the world a better place.