The tech industry is facing difficult times right now, punctuated by the tragic shooting at YouTube but also including a “tech backlash” as a result of the practices of some companies.
To be sure, the issues that regulators and indeed many ordinary people have with the likes of Facebook, Google, Amazon and, to a lesser extent, Apple, have nothing to do with Nasim Najafi Aghdam’s shooting spree at YouTube. That was the act of an individual who was apparently angry at Google-owned YouTube because of her perceived inability to adequately monetize the videos she was posting on the service. But it nevertheless rattled Silicon Valley at a time when nerves are justifiably raw for other reasons.
The YouTube shooting also exposed other problems with tech. Shortly after the shooting, Vadim Lavrusik, a product manager at YouTube with more than 41,000 Twitter followers, tweeted “Active shooter at YouTube HQ. Heard shots and saw people running while at my desk. Now barricaded inside a room with coworkers,” but just after that his account was hacked and used to falsely imply that Daniel Keem, or “Keemstar,” a popular YouTube personality was “lost in the shooting.” Keem was not involved in the incident.
But, in addition to this tragedy, the tech industry is also suffering through problems both self-inflicted and undeserved.
One of the self-inflicted problems stems from Facebook’s previous policies of allowing app developers to siphon information from users and their friends. The issue came to light after it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had improperly obtained information about “50 million” Facebook users that it sold to the Trump campaign. Facebook on Wednesday said it may have been as many as 87 million users. The information, which helped the campaign tailor its targeted ads, came from an app whose developer, according to Facebook, passed information on to Cambridge Analytica in violation of his agreement to use it for research purposes only.
When I first heard the Cambridge Analytica story, I hearkened back to a press event at Facebook on October 21, 2010, when Mark Zuckerberg along with Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist John Doerr, Zynga founder Mark Pincus and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced the $250 million sFund “to invest in entrepreneurs inventing social applications and services.”
I’m reminded of this event thanks to Recode’s Kara Swisher, who was with All Things D at the time. During a live blog, she pointed out that “Larry Magid from CBS asked about social responsibility around privacy, especially after the recent controversy around the leaking of Facebook user info to advertisers, via third-party apps companies such as Zynga.” Neither Swisher’s post nor my memory recall how Zuckerberg and the others responded, but I distinctly remember that sinking feeling I had about Facebook turning over personal information to what would eventually be thousands of third-party developers. I rarely take credit for having been prescient, but in this case, my gut feeling was correct.
To its credit, Facebook is finally doing something to rein in these third-party app developers. On Wednesday, the company announced updated “plans to restrict data access on Facebook,” which include several restrictions on how developers can collect user information. These include no longer allowing apps “to ask for access to personal information such as religious or political views, relationship status and details, custom friends lists, education and work history, fitness activity, book reading activity, music listening activity, news reading, video watch activity, and games activity.” On Monday, the company will start displaying a link at the top of people’s News Feed “so they can see what apps they use — and the information they have shared with those apps.” Facebook said that users “will also be able to remove apps that they no longer want.” And the company will tell people if their information was improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica.
During a press call on Wednesday, Zuckerberg took personal responsibility for letting people down. “We didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse in thinking through how people could use these tools to do harm as well.” He added “we didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibility is and that was a huge mistake. It was my mistake.”
Amazon is also having a tough time. There are plenty of good reason to be concerned about potential abuses by Amazon or any other company with enormous market share. And I’m not unsympathetic to President Trump’s concern over its impact on “mom-and-pop retailers.” But the president’s repeated unsubstantiated attacks on the company for taking advantages of tax loopholes and subsidized postal rates are unprecedented, inappropriate and untrue. To begin with, Amazon does collect state sales tax in every state that has a sales tax. There was a time when people in California and other states could avoid paying sales tax by purchasing from Amazon rather than local merchants, but those days, thankfully, are over. And even though Amazon does get a bulk discount on package delivery from the U.S. Postal Service, that discount is reportedly available to anyone that ships in that quantity. Despite Trump’s claim that the American taxpayer is subsidizing Amazon in the form of low rates, the Post Office says it makes a profit on the deal and, besides, it also says on its website that it “receives NO (emphasis theirs) tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations.” Trump’s tweets coincided with a large decline in the value of Amazon stock.
It’s no coincidence that Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is also the owner of the Washington Post, which has published numerous stories with information that Trump clearly doesn’t like. Calling the Post and other media outlets “fake news” isn’t enough for Trump. He also seems to feel a need to punish Amazon, whose stockholders, in addition to Bezos and other wealthy individuals, include millions of regular people who own the stock in their portfolios or through their pension plans, 401(k)s, mutual funds and other investment instruments.
Published at Fri, 13 Apr 2018 23:20:57 +0000