As I See It: Three Blind Vice
December 1, 2014 Victor Rozek
“Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best.” So said Edward Abbey, and although he wasn’t talking about Silicon Valley, the observation is no less true for that. As the technology sector increases its global dominance, the corruptive application of power is reflective of a changing ethic in the tech community. An ethic marred by success.
Leveraging the Disabled
I’ll bet you didn’t know that net neutrality hurts disabled people. Me neither. But, hey, if Verizon says so, it must be true. Right? Of what possible use would equal access be to a disabled person?
If you’re a disabled American with the time and inclination to worry about the speed of your Internet connection, rest easy, because you have a new champion looking after your interests. The Tin Man of Internet Service Providers has grown a heart. Verizon is not only professing a burning concern for the needs of the disabled, but it’s voicing its anxieties directly to Congress, because nothing says compassion for the less fortunate like the U.S. Congress.
Mother Jones was the proverbial fly on the wall when Verizon lobbyists were making the rounds on Capital Hill promoting the theory that in emergencies, without a fast lane Internet, disabled folks could be “stuck with subpar service as Internet traffic increases.” Verizon must think that disabled people–unlike the rest of the middle class–have few expenses and tons of disposable income. So what possible objection would they have to Verizon building a digital onramp straight to their bank accounts?
If you squint hard enough you can almost see a wheelchair-bound Statue of Liberty in the lobby of Verizon’s New York headquarters. Give us your deaf, your blind, your disabled, yearning to breathe free Internet. It would be touching if it wasn’t a cynical ploy designed to give cover to those poised to kill net neutrality, while guaranteeing oceans of money for Verizon. So much is at stake that in the first quarter of this year alone, ISPs spent $19 million lobbying to kill equal access. Maybe it’s not net neutrality but regulatory neutrality we should worry about.
Granted, there is novelty value in Verizon issuing warnings about substandard service, rather than being accused of it.
Threats of Reprisal
Sarah Lacy is no wilting violet. She is confident, articulate, and resolute. She has the guts of an Erin Brockovich, and she visits places marked by extreme poverty and psychopathic violence. Long-time friend and business partner Paul Carr describes what appears to be a fearless journalist:
“Sarah once travelled to Nigeria without security while heavily pregnant and was held hostage by a gang of machete wielding men. She has toured Rwanda and the favelas of Brazil similarly unprotected.” She then travelled back to Nigeria, “against State Department advice, in a week when Boko Haram had made specific kidnap threats against American travelers.” Carr concludes that Lacy is, to put it bluntly, “a badass.”
So why does a “badass” who doesn’t rattle easily, and is not given to histrionics, deem it necessary to hire armed security guards? Because she was threatened by the aggressive ride-sharing company Uber for writing unfavorable entries in her technology blog, Pando.
During a dinner with journalists in New York, Uber’s senior vice president Emil Michael served up a plateful of nasty. He boasted to Buzzfeed‘s Ben Smith that he would plant stories about Lacy in the media to discredit her, and that he would “go after” her personal life and her family. When asked how Uber could do that without making the company (described by investor Peter Thiel as “the most ethically challenged in Silicon Valley”) look even sleazier, Michael responded with a bully’s arrogance. His answer troubled Ben Smith sufficiently that he decided to publish an account of the incident:
“Nobody would know it was us,” Michael said.
Talk is cheap, but according to Lacy, Uber set aside a $1 million budget and a team of four to six people to dig up dirt on journalists and critics. It’s all very Nixonian, complete with enemies and secret operatives, but even the vindictive Nixon never attempted to destroy a woman by waging war on her children. When a corporation’s actions require the cover of anonymity, it might be time to take a deep knee bend and a long, hard look in the mirror.
Apologies were Tweeted by CEO Travis Kalanick and Michael but, Lacy points out, no punitive action was taken. Michael was not fired, nothing visibly changed, and the armed guards will remain in place. Meanwhile, a District Court judge in Washoe County, Nevada, enjoined Uber from operating in that state because of its deliberate disregard for regulatory statutes. In its defense Uber made the unusual claim that the ride-sharing company was not in the transportation business so it should be exempt from existing regulations. Mr. Michael would be ill advised to try to intimidate the judge’s family.
Culture of Power
Tom Foremski, publisher of the Silicon Valley Watcher, has been tracking the evolution of America’s technology capital for over a decade. There was a time, he says, when developers were socially conscious. Open source was in vogue, commercialism wasn’t. Companies wanted not only to be good, but to do good. There was an optimism about technology becoming a force for positive and lasting change, a recalibrated compass that would point the way to true North.
In Google‘s IPO filings, the founders’ letter was something the likes of which Foremski had never seen. It signaled, he believed, a seismic shift in corporate priorities. Here is an excerpt, the first three words of which have become the source of both consolation and controversy.
“Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served–as shareholders and in all other ways–by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains. We aspire to make Google an institution that makes the world a better place.”
Doubtless, the services Google provides fall within the realm of “good things.” But something funny happened on the way to transformation. “Silicon Valley companies have discovered the simple fact you can have your cake and eat it because there’s always more cake,” says Foremski. You don’t hear much about not being evil any more. That inspiring vision was replaced by what Foremski calls “liquid amorality,” a mindset that always finds the path of least resistance. Companies don’t necessarily start out intending to be evil, but as they amass a vast range of powers, they become determined to see just how far they can push the envelope, what they can get away with, and how often they can supersede the law without consequence.
In a symbolic show of displeasure, the European Union Parliament recently voted to break up Google. After a four-year standoff on a variety of issues from privacy to monopoly, the EU gave form to its frustration. The fact that the vote is non-binding tells you where the power lies.
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Whether it’s using the disabled, threatening journalists, or being co-opted by power, the high ideals of the garage startup often morph into regrettable behaviors. Sometimes the best simply have to pause long enough to reclaim their goodness.