A Summary of the Case
“Don’t be evil” is the famous first line of Google’s original Code of Conduct, what seems today like a quaint relic of the company’s early days, when the crayon colors of the Google logo still conveyed the cheerful, idealistic spirit of the enterprise. How long ago that feels. Of course, it would be unfair to accuse Google of being actively evil. But evil is as evil does, and some of the things that Google and other Big Tech firms have done in recent years have not been very nice.
When Larry Page and Sergey Brin first dreamed up the idea for Google as Stanford graduate students, they probably didn’t imagine that the shiny apple of knowledge that was their search engine would ever get anyone expelled from paradise (as many Google executives have been over a variety of scandals in recent years). Nor could they have predicted the many embarrassments that would emanate from the Googleplex: Google doctoring its algorithms in ways that would deep-six rivals off the crucial first page of its search results. Google’s YouTube hosting instructional videos on how to build a bomb. Google selling ads to Russian agents, granting them use of the platform to spread misinformation and manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Google working on a potential search engine for China—one that would be compliant with the regime’s efforts to censor unwelcome results. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt leaving his position as executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, a few months after the New York Times revealed he’d been unduly influencing antitrust policy work at a think tank that both his family foundation and Google itself supported, going so far as to push for the firing of a policy analyst who dared to speculate about whether Google might be engaging in anticompetitive practices (something that Schmidt has denied). In May 2019, Schmidt announced he would be stepping down from the Alphabet board as well.
All of this may not exactly be evil, but it certainly is worrisome.
Google’s true sin, like that of many Silicon Valley behemoths, may simply be hubris. The company’s top brass always wanted it to be big enough to set its own rules, and that has been its downfall, just as it has been for so many Big Tech firms. But this is not a book about Google alone. It is a book about how today’s most powerful companies are bifurcating our economy, corrupting our political process, and fogging our minds. While Google will often stand as the poster child for the industry more generally, this book will also cover the other four FAANGs—Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Netflix—as well as a number of additional platform giants, like Uber, that have come to dominate their respective spaces in the technology industry. I’ll also touch on the ways that a variety of older companies, from IBM to GM, are evolving in response to these new challengers. And I will look at the rise of a new generation of Chinese tech giants that is going where even the FAANGs don’t dare.
While there are plenty of companies both in Silicon Valley and elsewhere that illustrate the upsides and the downsides of digital transformation, the big technology platform firms have been the chief beneficiaries of the epic digital transformation we’re undergoing. They have replaced the industrialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the information-based economy that has come to define the twenty-first.
The implications are myriad, and I will track many of them, often via the Google narrative, which has been the marker for larger industry-wide shifts. Google has, after all, been the pioneer of big data, targeted advertising, and the type of surveillance capitalism that this book will cover. It was following the “move fast and break things” ethos long before Facebook.
I’ve been following the company for over twenty years, and I first encountered the celebrated Google founders, Page and Brin, not in the Valley, but in Davos, the Swiss gathering spot of the global power elite, where they’d taken over a small chalet to meet with a select group of media. The year was 2007. The company had just purchased YouTube a few months back, and it seemed eager to convince skeptical journalists that this acquisition wasn’t yet another death blow to copyright, paid content creation, and the viability of the news publications for which we worked.
Unlike the buttoned-up consulting types from McKinsey and BCG, or the suited executives from the old guard multinational corporations that roamed the promenades of Davos, their tasseled loafers slipping on the icy paths, the Googlers were the cool bunch. They wore fashionable sneakers, and their chalet was sleek, white, and stark, with giant cubes masquerading as chairs in a space that looked as though it had been repurposed that morning by designers flown in from the Valley. In fact, it may have been, and if so, Google wouldn’t have been alone in such excess. I remember attending a party once in Davos, hosted by Napster founder and former Facebook president Sean Parker, that featured giant taxidermy bears and a musical performance by John Legend.
Back in the Google chalet, Brin and Page projected a youthful earnestness as they explained the company’s involvement in authoritarian China, and insisted they’d never be like Microsoft, which was considered the corporate bully and monopolist of the time. What about the future of news, we wanted to know. After admitting that Page read only free news online whereas Brin often bought the Sunday New York Times in print (“It’s nice!” he said, cheerfully), the duo affirmed exactly what we journalists wanted to hear: Google, they assured us, would never threaten our livelihoods. Yes, advertisers were indeed migrating en masse from our publications to the Web, where they could target consumers with a level of precision that the print world could barely imagine. But not to worry. Google would generously retool our business model so we, too, could thrive in the new digital world.
I was much younger then, and not yet the (admittedly) cynical business journalist that I have become, and yet I still listened to that happy “future of news” lecture with some skepticism. Whether Google actually intended to develop some brilliant new revenue model or not, what alarmed me was that none of us were asking a far more important question. Sitting toward the back of the room, somewhat conscious of my relatively junior status, I hesitated, waiting until the final moments of the meeting before raising my hand.
“Excuse me,” I said. “We’re talking about all this like journalism is the only thing that matters, but isn’t this really about . . . democracy?” If newspapers and magazines are all driven out of business by Google or companies like it, I asked, how are people going to find out what’s going on?
Larry Page looked at me with an odd expression, as if he was surprised that someone should be asking such a naïve question. “Oh, yes. We’ve got a lot of people thinking about that.”
Not to worry, his tone seemed to say. Google had the engineers working on that “democracy” problem. Next question?
Well, it turns out that we did have to worry about democracy, and since November 2016, we have had to worry about it a lot more. And it’s impossible to ignore the obvious: As tech firms have become inexorably more powerful, our democracy has become more precarious. Newspapers and magazines have been hollowed out by Google and Facebook, which in 2018 together took 60 percent of the Internet advertising market. This is a key reason for the shuttering of some 1,800 newspapers between 2004 and 2018, a process that has left 200 counties with no paper at all, restricting the supply of reliable information that is the oxygen of democracy. And given that digital advertising surpassed TV ads in 2017, it’s clear that TV news will be the next to go. While cable news may have gotten a “Trump bump” in recent years, the longer term trend line is clear—TV will ultimately be disintermediated by Big Tech just the way print media has been.
But the trouble with Big Tech isn’t just an economic and business issue; it has political and cognitive implications as well. Often, these trends are written about in isolation, but in fact they are deeply intertwined. In this book, my goal is to connect the dots—to tell the whole story, which is far bigger than the sum of its parts.
Copyright © 2019 by Rana Foroohar. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.