Tech.pinions

A Pall is cast over Silicon Valley

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I have often been called a Silicon Valley apologist, and I never deny that I am on the side of history that sees our area as being one of the most technologically creative areas of the world that have developed life, work, and changing educational products during the last 75 years.

I was born in San Jose and have witnessed it going from a sleepy fruit orchard when I was born in the early 50’s to a world-class tech center where hundred’s of companies are developing innovative technologies that they hope will be world changing. In most cases, the technology is used for good. But the recent developments coming from Facebook taking ad dollars from hate groups and fake Russian sites to Google’s business model that wants as many personal data from us to bomb us with adds and you can see why Silicon Valley is getting a lot of negative attention these days. Add to that the massive security breaches enabled by flawed software and it has cast a real pall over Silicon Valley lately.

While I am very bullish on Silicon Valley, I know that its past and present has many blemishes to deal with from our help in creating weapons of mass destruction to our current position of allowing social media to run amok. Because of lack of real innovation and outdated rules in tracking and blocking fake social sites from impacting everything from elections to bolstering hate groups, Facebook, Google and even Twitter are now the target of major governmental scrutiny around the world.

Silicon Valley is also coming under attack over corporate tax issues, and offshore holdings and in more and more articles I see Silicon Valley being painted as villains instead of the creative innovators who drive much of our tech breakthroughs as well as a significant part of the US and world economy.

I have been talking to some industry pioneers who, like myself, have been in Silicon Valley for decades and they are gravely concerned about the tone and attitude the outside press and social media are saying about the Valley and tech in general. And the recent disclosures of sexual harassment within the VC community and various tech companies as well as questions about diversity and Silicon Valley is coming under pressures they have never had to deal with in the past.

In fact, the San Jose Mercury News, our local Silicon Valley newspaper wrote a story last week entitled “Silicon Valley’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad week-ok month.”

It opened with this perspective:

“From Facebook’s advertising and fake-news issues to Google’s pay practices and antitrust woes, Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies are feeling the heat lately.
The left, the right and those in between are slamming the tech giants, leading to headlines such as “Conservatives, liberals unite against Silicon Valley” and “There’s Blood in the Water in Silicon Valley.”

It goes on to quote Trever Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center and a former chairman of the Federal Election committee who said in a letter he wrote to Mark Zuckerberg-

““[B]y hosting these secretly-sponsored Russian political ads, Facebook appears to have been used as an accomplice in a foreign government’s effort to undermine democratic self-governance in the United States,” Potter wrote, according to Yahoo News. “Therefore, we ask you, as the head of a company that has used its platform to promote democratic engagement, to be transparent about how foreign actors used that same platform to undermine our democracy.”

Then later in the week, ProPublica wrote a story saying ” Facebook’s self-serve ad platform was allowing advertisements that targeted groups such as “Jew haters.”

For a lot of us who have been part of Silicon Valley’s past and present, these recent developments are more than concerning. For decades our work and the work of Silicon Valley pioneers and its tech workers have toiled long hours to bring ground breaking technology to the world that has changed the lives and businesses in hundreds of ways. And for the most part, that change has been for good
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Until recently even social media has had a mostly positive influence on people and even helped bring about the Arab Spring revolution a few years back and was instrumental in helping people rescue others during the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida.

But now Russia and other trolls have learned how to game the systems and play into the overall profit motives of the Facebooks and Googles of the world who operate with minimal oversight lest it impacts their profits.

All of these things combined has painted a very different picture of Silicon Valley to many in the US and around the world. While I am troubled by the Valley’s image taking a major blow, I am more concerned that too often our engineering driven world has created products just to create them without really understanding the ramifications of what they have made. In many cases, I do not see any ethics checks, or even thought about the long term impact their technology may have when they start the creative process.

This is especially the case with Facebook, Google, and even Twitter. While all have primary virtues, they have all evolved to include serious flaws when it comes to privacy, allowing fraudulent accounts, etc. and have not come up with either the proper technology advances to control these problems or developed policies that keep them from happening in the first place. The Fake News issues in-itself is a Pandora’s box with world-changing ramifications.

This type of scrutiny could bring about more governmental oversight and perhaps these data behemoths might even come under anti-trust regulations if they don’t find a way to keep their sites in check and become more responsible for what is being posted or how the data is collected for their business gains.

Given what I see being written about the Valley lately and how governmental and social leaders are targeting many tech companies, I fear that a day of reckoning is about to be upon us. Most of the big tech companies are going to be challenged in ways they are not prepared for given the intense pressure that is building up in Washington, the EU and other parts of the world.

I don’t know how tech will find a way to get back into the graces of the public. But if they don’t find a way to self-regulate themselves and be more ethical in the way they run their businesses, I suspect we will see much more in the wave of governmental and regulatory oversight that we hoped would never happen to tech companies in general and especially the world-changing ones here in Silicon Valley.