Tech blind spot: on Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal

Tech giants do not understand the social costs of their business decisions

Updated - October 13, 2018 03:58 pm IST

Published - April 26, 2018 12:00 am IST

 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 11, 2018.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 11, 2018.

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the U.S. Congress has unleashed a wave of outrage against the social networking giant. But Facebook is not the only Silicon Valley titan facing difficult questions about ethics and trust.

Earlier this year, about 3,100 Google employees signed and internally circulated a letter protesting Google’s involvement with Project Maven, a Pentagon program. As a partner in the project, Google will help develop advanced Artificial Intelligence capabilities for military drones. The employees’ letter begins, “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war... We ask that Project Maven be cancelled, and that Google draft, publicise, and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.” It goes on to add that if Google doesn’t withdraw from Project Maven, it will “irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent.”


Yet another instance of a backlash involves YouTube. On April 3, Nasim Najafi Aghdam, 38, entered the YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, California, and opened fire, injuring three people, before shooting herself. While investigations are still on, it has been reported that her motive was to hit back at YouTube for its new ‘demonetisation policy’. Aghdam had a channel on YouTube. As a participant in the YouTube Partner Program, she apparently earned a decent income from monetising her content through advertisements. But YouTube recently tightened its rules for video content that is eligible for monetisation, raising the bar from 10,000 lifetime views to 4,000 viewing hours in the last 12 months and 1,000 subscribers. This straightaway disqualified a huge number of smaller YouTubers. While Aghdam was later characterised as being mentally unstable, it may be that her principal complaint had been her belief that YouTube had unfairly suppressed content creators.


Lastly we have Uber, which is no stranger to controversy. In March, around 650 taxi drivers blocked traffic and set off fireworks in front of the EU headquarters in Brussels to protest against the Belgian government’s draft legislation that would give cab licences to individuals instead of firms, a move that they feared would favour Uber and destroy local taxi companies. The drivers believed, and correctly so, that Uber’s employee-less workforce and incentive-based payment system could decimate their unions and protected wages.

These cases, involving four of the tech world’s most valuable businesses, suggest a pattern of profound inability among Silicon Valley majors to recognise certain humanistic concerns of the communities they profess to serve. It remains to be seen whether the pushback by users will succeed in educating these cash-rich behemoths on the social costs of their business decisions. Sadly, Mr. Zuckerberg’s stonewalling during his testimony did not give much reason for hope.

The writer is with The Hindu in New Delhi

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