Dear Vice President Biden,
In this moment when a pandemic, an economic contraction, and protests against racism have combined to trigger national self-reflection, you have an opportunity to lead us forward to a better America, one that comes closer to the nation’s ideals than ever before. I am one of millions of Americans looking to you for new approaches to government and leadership. We are counting on you to reject the old ways that brought us to this point.
One of the policy areas that demands a new approach is technology. New technologies like facial recognition and artificial intelligence have been plagued by racial and gender bias, with particular harm in areas like law enforcement, job hiring, and mortgage applications. Internet platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter have amplified hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories, undermining our politics, our pandemic response, and the safety of our citizens. More than 1,000 marketers have joined the #StopHateForProfit campaign, agreeing to pause their advertising on Facebook for a month or more to protest the amplification of hate. In addition, many companies in Silicon Valley have been accused of racial and gender bias relative to employees, most recently Facebook, where an employee and two applicants filed a complaint of alleged racial bias. For all its past contributions to our nation, Silicon Valley now has issues with culture, business models, and business practices that require government intervention.
Imagine my disappointment last week when The New York Times reported that President Obama had suggested that you work with two members of the Silicon Valley establishment, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. I know both men well. They are brilliant and very successful. Their money and expertise may be valuable to your campaign, but I hope you will not turn to them for policy guidance. They were architects of the culture and values that produced the problems I described above.
I hope you will take to heart the words of Albert Einstein, who said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This is particularly true in tech.
Silicon Valley has been an engine of growth in our economy and has influenced our culture since 1956, when a Justice Department consent decree created the computer industry and made the transistor available to anyone who wanted to use it. In the ’60s and ’70s, the optimism of the space program was infectious. In the ’80s and ’90s, personal computers empowered us, then the internet connected us. In the early aughts, Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn transformed our lives, initially for the better. But those companies had different cultural values than their predecessors. Where Steve Jobs talked of his products as “bicycles for the mind,” Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted to “move fast and break things,” and he built a company to do precisely that. Reid Hoffman advocated blitzscaling, which prioritized speed over efficiency and scale over values. The success of Zuckerberg and Hoffman caused a generation of imitators whose focus on building their own wealth and power has come at great cost to customers, suppliers, and employees. Eric Schmidt told us that privacy should not matter to us. When he said that “Google is a belief system,” he meant it.
Unlike 20 years ago, today’s Silicon Valley culture is elitist and authoritarian. The cult of the founder has blinded Silicon Valley to society’s needs. The tech industry has been transformed into a poster child for income inequality, toxic masculinity, and white privilege. In the era of George Floyd, Silicon Valley’s leaders are the last people to provide you with guidance on technology policy. Their companies and their community should instead be targets for reform.
The problems with Silicon Valley’s largest companies, especially the internet platforms, are not occasional or inadvertent. They are systemic and intentional. Hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories are the meticulously engineered lubricants that maximize revenue for Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. The decline of journalism has happened because Google and Facebook found a way to insert themselves between media companies and their audience, and then to siphon off advertising dollars. The explosion and influence of extremist groups on Facebook are not an accident; they are the result of conscious choices. Facebook’s internal research revealed that its own recommendations account for 64 percent of registrations to Facebook Groups focused on extremist topics. Rather than change policy, management did nothing. The convenience of Amazon Prime, Uber, and Postmates (now an Uber subsidiary) results in part from exploitative labor practices. The flaws of new products like facial recognition and AI are not inevitable; they result from a culture that ships products at the earliest possible moment, without consideration for the impact on the people who use or are affected by them. These examples just scratch the surface.