It’s long past time for the biggest internet companies to pull their weight in society. Trembling startups not long ago, the global technology superelite have amassed the effective power of major nation-states, but without accountability, responsibility for their public influence, transparency, checks and balances or even awareness that they might be a problem rather than a solution. Focus on Facebook and Google, plus Twitter. They are radically unregulated. They hold our most intimate personal information. They have destabilized traditional, fact-based journalism. They have vast wealth ― a combined market value of $1.2 trillion ― and the power that accompanies it. In Washington and other capitals, they lobby hard for their self-interests, often against ours. And during an era when even the National Security Agency gets hacked, they have created data stores that could fundamentally threaten our democracy and others.
The internet’s aristocracy arose with the commercialization of the web, starting 20 years ago. To the hectic leaders of Silicon Valley, two decades seems like geologic time – but in the evolving social and political cultures of our species, two decades is the blink of an eye. We haven’t yet absorbed the implications of these potent, purposefully disruptive technologies. We’re addicted to smartphones. We’ve lost control of much of our personal data. The corporate and governmental entities that so voraciously collect our secrets seem indifferent to their protection. Our biometrics will be hacked. Baseless accusations of “fake” corrode the foundations of our civilization.
In December, Facebook posted a response to the question: “Is spending time on social media bad for us?” Among the studies reaching that conclusion is one published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, stating: “Our results showed that overall, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with well-being… The negative associations of Facebook use were comparable to or greater in magnitude than the positive impact of offline interactions, which suggests a possible tradeoff between offline and online relationships.” Such are the unintended, faintly understood consequences of commercialized internet technology.
Technology alone is not the problem. Our vulnerabilities arise from commerce – specifically, the tech-enabled exploitation of personal data by businesses.
You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors… understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.
Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president
Imagine that back in the 1950s, the U.S. Postal Service opened every letter and recorded its contents, while the phone company taped every call. What’s happening now is like that. Back then, though, no one had the computing power, digital storage capacity, or algorithms to make sense of so much data. Now it’s easy. And folks then would have raised hell if the post office or Ma Bell had invaded their privacy; now we give our privacy away. That has enabled a tiny group of companies to establish themselves as hosts of much of our public discourse, by accumulating and exploiting data better than the competition.
Unlike businesses that make money principally by selling things, Facebook, Google and Twitter offer services for “free.” In business, “free” almost always is a lie. As an executive taught me ages ago, “If you are not paying for a service, you are what’s being sold.” In exchange for their services, many free-model companies spy on us — memorizing our data, noting our interests, often capturing our keystrokes and following us wherever we venture online. Then they exploit us, by selling advertising individually targeted to us and others, to anyone with a dollar or a ruble. With data on at least two billion users each, Facebook and Google consume consumers the way whales eat krill. According to research firm eMarketer, the two companies together control 60 percent of digital advertising in the U.S.
Companies selling digital ads rely on two sources of value: data on individuals and engagement. The more time we spend on Facebook, the more engaged we are, the more ads we see, and the more valuable those ads become. That’s the essence of Facebook’s business. “The thought process that went into building these applications… was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, recently recalled. “And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while… You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors… understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”
Roger McNamee, co-founder of Elevation Partners, is a venture capitalist who invested early in Facebook. Now he is terrified of Facebook and disappointed. “They’ve taken techniques that were around for hundreds of years and married them to invasive techniques. The result is brain hacks. People are losing agency, and they don’t realize it. It affects civilization,” he said.
It’s normal for media to try to engage consumers, and many stoke interest with sensation. But on a platform like Facebook, human bias for the sensational actually disadvantages rational, fact-based discourse relative to the crazy nonsense freely forwarded by conspiracy nuts, bots and trolls. Socially destructive messages get cheaper and better distribution than constructive ones. And Facebook’s reach – a quarter of the entire human population – dramatically raises the stakes.
Danah Boyd, a social network expert and founder of the Data & Society think tank, warns, “Tech companies are ill-prepared for how decentralized networks of people manipulate their systems for fun, profit, politics, and ideology. They often think that they can build better technology to solve the problem, failing to recognize how agile their adversaries truly are.”
In this context, Facebook emerges as public enemy number one. It’s by far the biggest social network, 35 times bigger than Twitter. Google purveys such invasive offerings as Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Home. Nevertheless, core Google offerings such as search and maps are grounded in actual reality. Thus, while Facebook’s vulnerability to malicious abuse is bone-deep, deriving from the algorithms that made it successful, Google has a compelling economic interest in what might be called objective truth. “We came from … a more naive position,” says Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company. “But now, faced with the data and what we’ve seen from Russia in 2016 and with other actors around the world, we have to act.”
No such considerations may inhibit Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook’s CEO shows every sign of being in denial. At the Techonomy conference two days after Trump’s victory, Zuckerberg called the idea of Facebook influence on the election “crazy.” When Facebook, Google, and Twitter were called before Congress to testify about Russian meddling in the election, none of their CEOs showed up. Zuckerberg went to Beijing instead, paying homage to China’s Xi Jinping. The fifth-wealthiest person on the planet, and a tireless promoter said to harbor presidential ambitions, Zuckerberg structured even his putative philanthropy, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, as a for-profit LLC that’s free to invest in lobbying. Perhaps disingenuously, he framed Russian interference as a security problem, rather than as a feature of Facebook’s core business. “We’re serious about preventing abuse on our platforms. We’re investing so much in security that it will impact our profitability,” Zuckerberg said. “Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits.”
McNamee reports that, in 2016, he emailed a friendly warning to Zuckerberg and Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg. He documented seven instances of bad actors abusing Facebook to harm powerless people, “Jim Crow stuff,” he says now. “I hoped they’d take a look.” After waiting four months, a period that included Trump’s election, McNamee began publicly airing his concerns. “They treated it as a PR problem,” he recalls. “They never took it seriously. And now they are lobbying like crazy to protect themselves.” (Facebook has announced the belated implementation of one of McNamee’s suggestions: informing users of their contacts with Russian agents.)
Chamath Palihapitiya, formerly Facebook’s head of user growth, told an audience at Stanford University last month, “Even though we feigned this whole line of, like, ‘There probably aren’t any really bad unintended consequences,’ I think in the back, deep, deep recesses of our minds, we kind of knew something bad could happen,” he said. “We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” Facebook’s PR apparatus lashed back, “Chamath has not been at Facebook for over six years. When Chamath was at Facebook we were focused on building new social media experiences and growing Facebook around the world. Facebook was a very different company back then and as we have grown we have realised how our responsibilities have grown too. We take our role very seriously and we are working hard to improve.”
Now, if ever, is the time for CEOs, writers of algorithms and other architects of our future to take responsibility – before, crippled by self-interest, they irreparably harm us all. Artificial intelligence looms, ominous and unknowable as a Kubrick monolith. AI, like any complex digital product, is a mysterious black box guided, but not illuminated, by data and algorithms. Once set in motion, AIs make decisions that even their makers cannot fathom, much as a major airline today doesn’t know precisely how its computers priced a seat. It may not be long before AIs shape the fates of our species and our planet.
But even cadres of enlightened CEOs will not suffice to turn things around, warns Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which advocates to protect democratic institutions from digital threats. “We need to realize that the tech world cannot regulate itself,” he says. “We need to end the myth that there are technological solutions to all problems provoked by technology. We need to develop social and political solutions.”
Our ultimate champions must be ourselves. Start by quitting Facebook. Here’s how: After downloading your data, go here and click on the blue button marked “Delete My Account.” I just did it, and I feel better already. Pass it on.
Stratford Sherman, a former member of Fortune’s Board of Editors, reported on business and technology for 20 years, and co-authored Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will. He currently works as a leadership advisor and coach, with a clientele of Silicon Valley CEOs. He has consulted for Google and OpenAI.