Recode’s Code Conference is taking place this week is an annual appointment of the who’s who of tech with Kara Swisher, Peter Kafka, and crew. This year’s lineup includes talks with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, Facebook executives Adam Mosseri and Andrew Bosworth, Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy, Fair Fight founder Stacey Abrams, Netflix vice president of original content Cindy Holland, Russian Doll star Natasha Lyonne, and Medium CEO Ev Williams, to name a few.
There is still one day to go, but so far, one trend seems to come through: much of tech is still in denial about the issues tech and society are facing.
The Relationship Between Tech Companies and Government Sure Is Complicated
The past few months have seen the relationship between government and tech giants become much more complicated. From the call to breaking up Amazon, Google and Facebook, to antitrust probes and calls for regulations on AI, facial recognition, and more.
At Recode’s Code Conference speakers touched on many of these topics but gave little reassurance that they grasp the urgency needed to address some of these issues.
Instagram’s Adam Mosseri said that while splitting up Facebook and Instagram might make his life easier it is a terrible idea because splitting up the companies would make it exponentially more difficult to keep people safe especially for Instagram. He went on to say that more people are working on integrity and safety issues at Facebook than anybody who works at Instagram. This is not the first time the argument that size matters has been made. It seems disingenuous, though, not to point out that size matters also as a negative point. It is, in fact, the size and the reach Facebook has that makes it such an important platform to target for bad actors from election manipulation to hate speech. One could argue that a smaller company, while more limited in resources, would also limit the appeal.
AWS CEO, Andy Jassy, said he’d like to see federal regulation on how facial recognition technology should and should not be used. His eagerness, however, was driven by a concern that otherwise we would see 50 different laws in 50 different states. He also stated: “I strongly believe that just because the technology could be misused, doesn’t mean we should ban it and condemn it.” Amazon, as well as Salesforce and Microsoft, all faced employees’ criticism on their involvement in providing technologies to ICE and the US Custom and Border Protection Agency. At Codecon, immigrant advocacy organization RAICES accused tech companies of supporting Trump’s administration no Tolerance stand on immigration by making their technologies available to the agencies. While tech providers have been working with government agencies for years, the higher level of intricacies between privacy and civil liberties on the one hand and government interest on the other are raising the scrutiny, especially under the current administration.
Facebook to Reveal New Portal Devices
Talking about being in denial. Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Facebook’s vice president of AR/VR, told The Verge’s Casey Newton that the company has “lot more that we’re going to unveil later in this fall,” related to Portal, including “new form factors that we’re going to be shipping.” While no sales numbers were provided during the interview, Bosworth said that Portal’s sales were “very good.”
It is still unclear to me how Portal can be a long-term success for Facebook. The smart camera and smart sound that follow the subjects were probably the most significant appeal for Portal. Alexa built in added to the draw for those users who might have liked the technology but were not that keen at letting Facebook in their home.
I do wonder how long it will take both Amazon and Google to add similar technology to their screen-based devices and the impact that this will have on Facebook’s hardware. Both Amazon and Google scored better than Facebook did in our privacy and trust study signaling that consumers will have a higher propensity to let those brands in their home before they let Facebook in.
I am also not convinced that Facebook’s focus on human connection transfers from messenger to Portal. The kind of personal exchange that Portal is focusing on does not involve the same type of people we tend to engage with on Facebook Messenger. According to Similarweb.com in 2018, Facebook Messenger had the second largest audience following WhatsApp. While heavily skewed to North American Facebook Messenger counted 1.3 billion users worldwide. Messenger proved to be a very effective marketing channel, which means that many of those interactions are between consumers and a brand or consumers and a bot.
While I understand how Portal offers the opportunity to create a more meaningful connection with users, I feel that Facebook is underestimating how much more cautious and irrational people become when we talk about privacy in the home. Ultimately, I do not see Facebook being able to deliver a differentiated smart home, assistant, or video chat service that will drive consumers to invest in their ecosystem over that of Amazon or Google.
We Are Trying Our Best, We Are Very Sorry
At the end of day one, Kara Swisher was asked if there was a thread transpiring from the interviews and she answered everybody was saying: “We are trying our best, we are very sorry.”
It is hard to take the act of contrition on display as genuine when so much is at stake with tech at the moment. YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki was asked by Ina Fried, the chief technology correspondent at Axios: “I’m curious, are you really sorry for anything to the LGBTQ+ community, or are you just sorry that they were offended?” the almost 3 minutes long string of words which started with “I am really personally very sorry” was a non-answer to a straightforward question. Wojcicki pointed to overall improvements to hate speech that will benefit the LGBTQ+ community but really did not explain any of the thought processes behind the decision.
Unfortunately, Wojcicki is not alone when it comes to the leadership of tech giants lacking accountability and transparency. Some commentators say these issues are not black and white, which is true, but that should not stop us from trying to resolve them.
It seems to me that most tech companies are not even willing to admit there is an issue, which will make it impossible to find a solution. Wojcicki, for instance, was not even ready to acknowledge that social media platforms contribute to radicalization. In a refreshing twist of events, Twitter seemed more in touch with reality as top legal counsel Vijaya Gadde said: “I think that there is content on Twitter and every [social media] platform that contributes to radicalization, no doubt.”
I am an optimist, and I like to see the good in tech. I certainly don’t want to fix something that is not broken, and I worry about government intervention because of the lack of understanding of the world we leave in and the need to put their political agenda before us. That said, with the changes that technologies such as AI, ML, and 5G are bringing, it is time for big tech to step up their accountability, transparency, and ethics game. Whether you believe Voltaire or Spider-Man said it, it is never more on point than today: “With great power comes great responsibility.”