Over the last several months, many of the leading digital companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, YouTube (Google), Twitter and more — have come under fire for business practices that are considered suspect. Below are recent examples highlighting several companies:
- Amazon came under fire from President Trump for allegedly taking advantage of the U.S. Postal Service.
- Two major shareholders criticized Apple for the addictive nature of iPhones for children.
- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress in mid-April detailing lapses in its privacy practices which led to Cambridge Analytica gaining access to the personal information of over 80 million users.
- YouTube has come under fire for approving a video that detailed a possible suicide as well as for targeting underage children with advertising.
- Twitter has come under scrutiny for its role in in the 2016 U.S. presidential election as well as for letting President Trump use the platform in an irresponsible and threatening manner.
Whether you agree with the rhetoric or not, it looks as if the very technology companies who helped usher in the digital generation are now coming under fire for the environment they created. As many of these companies have become extremely powerful, there is a growing sentiment that they have become morally ambiguous in their pursuit of market share and profits.
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The Profit vs. Responsibility Balancing Act
Inherent in the definition of any company or corporation is a profit motive, so should we really be surprised by most of the actions taken by these tech giants in pursuit of their money-making objectives? Historically, most of us would likely say "no," although a vocal minority might suggest the role of the corporation has shifted over the last few decades as evidenced by the emergence of the concept of corporate citizenship. And for better or worse, Apple set the bar for technology companies in the late '90s with its Think Different ad campaign and Google reinforced it with its Don’t Be Evil slogan.
So while expectations might be set slightly higher for technology companies due to a handful of their brethren, the question is are they living up to their end of the bargain given “with great power comes great responsibility”? The answer currently appears to be "no." Given the market power these companies possess should we be questioning this somewhat unchecked concentration of power?
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Self-Regulation, Government Regulation, or ... ?
Salesforce provides one positive example to look to. The company has embraced what it calls its 1-1-1 model which dedicates 1 percent of its:
- Employees’ Time
to the communities it operates in around the world. While it’s impossible to say unequivocally that this model has kept Salesforce out of the public doghouse, an argument could also be made that by embracing a philosophy like this and having the highest levels of the company publicly support it has reinforced good business practices and corporate behavior. Clearly some companies have a gap between what is preached and what is practiced.
Is it time for the government to start stretching its legs? By raising the prospect of regulation, will it change the behavior of these companies? While the conversation is top of mind following Zuckerberg's congressional testimony, I think it might be a little premature for government involvement (although European legislators seem awfully keen on reining in the influence of leading U.S. technology companies).
Having said that, I also think the companies need a shot across the bow so they understand some of their actions are not acceptable in the long term. Whether that occurs remains to be seen, but as a longtime unabashed supporter of technology, even I have been rethinking my views over the last couple of years. Technology companies risk losing the public's support. If they choose to be tone deaf, there will likely be consequences for that behavior.