Big technology companies are still misdiagnosing why they have so many enemies.
Mark Zuckerberg last week told interviewers that people and institutions who are losing control in the world blame Facebook for the changes they’re seeing. Earlier, Jeff Bezos countered critics of Amazon by doing back-of-the-envelope math to calculate his company’s value to shoppers, employees and businesses.
The sentiment behind these executives’ messages was, basically: If people don’t appreciate our companies’ contributions to the world, they’re wrong.
Zuckerberg and Bezos were sort of right, but they also missed the point. They failed to acknowledge the root cause of government investigations into tech companies and criticisms from some competitors and business partners: Where there is power, there is suspicion. And technology companies are among the most powerful forces in the world.
It’s been more than a decade since the technology industry emerged from the financial crisis as a dominant influence on economies and on how we live and perceive the world. And I’m surprised that tech bosses can still appear clueless about the reasons behind the questioning of their industry. Repeat after me: It’s about their power.
The suspicion may not always be fair or productive. But executives like Bezos and Zuckerberg have big megaphones, and it matters when they misunderstand (or deliberately misconstrue) why some people in the world, including customers like us, can get anxious about their power.
To give some examples: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube froze out former President Donald Trump after he repeatedly posted messages that falsely claimed election fraud and incited a crowd that stormed the U.S. Capitol. Soon, a quasi-judicial body created by Facebook is going to decide whether Trump should have his account back.
Apple is about to reprogram iPhone software in ways that could significantly limit the amount of data that all companies collect about us.
These companies can single-handedly decide whether world leaders have a big platform to talk directly to citizens, and upend America’s data-tracking surveillance industries. Putting aside the companies’ decisions here, it’s unsettling that a handful of unelected tech executives have this much power.
The boss of a company that sells backyard fire pits asked The Wall Street Journal: “Why is Apple now the decider?” That’s exactly the right question, and not just about Apple. One of the big questions for our time is: What, if anything, should be done about a few tech companies that have so much power?
Are Amazon and gig economy companies remaking the nature of work and the U.S. economy? And is that right? Is it fair that Google, Facebook and Twitter are de facto State Departments, with the authority to decide whether to follow repressive speech laws or fight them?
When a few giant tech companies have power on par with governments, that deserves attention and probing. Sometimes I think technology executives get this. Bezos regularly says that large and important institutions including Amazon deserve scrutiny. (Who knows if he means it.)
Tech companies are right that there is often misplaced anger at them for broader social dislocations including polarization and income inequality. They’re right that when some government officials go after them, it’s often out of self-interest.
But tech companies wanted to be in a position where they have so much influence. They wanted to change the world — and they did. They cannot and should not be surprised that now lots of people and authorities are questioning why these companies have so much power and whether they’re using it wisely.