Which Tech Companies Are Doing the Most Harm?

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S1: Can I just be really pedantic and ask you to just say say hello and your full name? Yes. Hello. And it’s Lindsay Barrett. Lindsay teaches and is an attorney at the Public Representation Communications and Technology Clinic at Georgetown Law School.

S2: I am Felix Salmon. I am the chief financial correspondent at axios. Felix also co-hosts the Slate Money podcast.

S3: I’m Mitali in Condé. I feel like I’m the fellow Voll fellow fellow fellows, but I’m a public interest technologist.

S1: Right now, she’s got fellowships at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet Society at Harvard, as well as the Digital Society Lab at Stanford. She’s also worked in Congress. All three of them are really smart people who think a lot about tech and we made them think about it in this little exercise called the Evil List.

S4: Slate sent ballots to some 200 scholars, journalists and activists, including Lindsay, Feliks and Mitali. We asked them to tell us which tech companies they’re most concerned about. And we let them decide for themselves what counts as concerning then DAP evil is our word. It’s a play on Google’s old motto, Don’t be evil. Figuring out which companies went where on the list was complicated. Here’s Lindsey.

S5: It was incredibly hard, especially given that you’re kind of designing your own criteria and they realize that anything stupid. I came up with what you would have to be, something I’d have to defend. It’s not as though you’re having a late night fight with friends over who’s more evil.

S4: We ended up with a list of 30 companies which we published on Slate’s Web site. Some you’ve heard of, some you probably haven’t. And some you almost certainly use every day. Amazon, by the way, was number one today on the show. In a world of growing alarm over big tech, which companies are actually the scariest and why? I’m Lizzie O’Leary. And this is What Next, TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

S1: For today’s show, we asked each of our guests to come in, prepared to talk about one company they picked for the list. Lindsey, I want to start with you. What company are you going to talk about today?

S6: So I’m going to talk about Horizon It. And a number of the other biggest telecom companies have just been engaging in the most anti consumer activity you can think of for a very long time, both in lobbying against net neutrality, in lobbying against municipal broadband, against broadband privacy protections, against a strong privacy law, and arguing for a weak, comprehensive federal law. The reason that I wanted to highlight Verizons and its peers was because in this reckoning that we’re having about kind of the role of these tech companies and the impact that they have on their lives and the freedom that they should be able to have to take advantage of us. The telecom companies can often get short shrift. And it’s important to note that not only have they been engaging in deeply harmful conduct that rises to the level of what we’re criticizing. But the tech companies, they’re trying to be the tech companies, you know, go down the list. They’re all trying to start their own ad tech networks, you know, with the broadband privacy rules. The biggest argument that they kept repeating was, well, how on earth can you expect us to compete with Facebook and Google, Verizon? I don’t want you to compete with Facebook and Google at violating my privacy. Please stop it. So we’re just weirdly labeling. One thing is tech and deserving of more scrutiny and one thing is telecom and deserving of less.

S1: I think that’s what struck me about what you wrote. And just sort of thinking about this in a list way is like, oh, a telecom that seems so quaint. Horizon founded in 1983. I don’t think that maybe in the public imagination they are counted as tech companies and certainly not in the kind of tech lash moment that right now.

S7: But every company is a tech company now. And I think this is an unhelpful distinction. And when you come to these enormous broadband providers say the one thing that every foreigner realizes when they move to the United States is, oh, my God, how expensive is broadband in this country? If you you know, if you come here from France or Korea or the U.K. or basically anywhere else in the planet, and you’re unbelievably fast and reliable, broadband is maybe $10, $15 month. And you come to the United States and it’s suddenly like 60 or 70 dollars a month, you realize the extent of the profits that these companies are making by dint of their local monopoly status. And there’s no reason why they should have that status. No similar company has that status anywhere else in the world. That’s a very simple thing that can be done, which is called local loop unbundling. And what that means is if the risin has laid fiber optic cable into your house and is selling you broadband over that fiber, other people can also sell you broadband over that same fiber and then they can compete on price that solves all of these problems at a stroke.

S8: Most countries have done it and they you get competition among various different providers to sell you broadband. And people go with the cheapest option because it’s the same service. It’s testament to the power of the lobbying arms of these companies that it hasn’t been done here. And it’s precisely the profits that they make from those enormous broadband fees that allows them to do things like buy Yahoo! Or NBC Universal or any of the other big media companies that they would.

S1: Felix, I want to talk about the company that you put on here, which is byt dance, this Chinese startup. Why did you pick one that was a Chinese startup as opposed to one of the 800 pound gorilla in the room?

S2: Well, it is a kind of 800 pound gorilla in China. Maybe I’m just looking at it from far too American view.

S7: Yeah, I mean. OK. So it’s worth probably closer to 100 billion dollars rather than a trillion dollars. A billion dollars. You know, I’m old enough to remember when that was a lot of money. And the thing that strikes me about bite guns is that they are an example of what you can do with with a huge R&D budget into A.I. when you are completely unconstrained by ethical constraints when it comes to bite dance.

S1: The list of concerns is extensive, especially as more and more U.S. teens use bite dances popular app Tick-Tock. There’s worry about data privacy and censorship. Then there was also the recent news that Tick-Tock was developing a feature that used deep vein technology. But for Felix, it’s their work in A.I. that sets them apart. Tick-Tock uses A.I. in a way that other major social media platforms don’t. It takes granular data about what music you like, the kinds of videos you watched, and even what the people looked like and then shows you content tailored just for you.

S7: Other social networks do something similar, but nowhere near on this individualized level and they are taking the A.I. and they are very happy to work within the communist dictatorship of China and abide by those rules and use A.I. to create unbelievably compelling and addictive products, as we know from Tick-Tock.

S1: Some lawmakers are worried. Here’s Senator Josh HAWLEY.

S9: The threat isn’t just a children’s privacy. It’s a threat to our national security. We don’t know what China can do with this kind of social data in aggregate. What it tells China about our society, they can see who we talk to, what we talk about, where we congregate, what we capture on video.

S1: There has been concern from U.S. lawmakers how much of that criticism is valid? How much of that is sort of fear of China and how do we interpret the way U.S. regulators and U.S. lawmakers look at the capacity of a Chinese company?

S8: It’s a really good question. And. Ultimately, I’m not convinced that Bite Duns is evil just by dint of being Chinese, and Tick-Tock itself is really trying very hard to say we’re not Chinese or American, we just wish we were an American subsidiary of Bite Down Spit. All of this is a little bit beside the point because all companies.

S10: Engaged in the same kind of arms race.

S7: All companies are trying to create increasingly addictive apps and they’re using A.I. to do that and trying to refine their algorithms to maximize the amount of time use in app and that kind of thing and trying to optimize the variables that shouldn’t really be optimized from a public interest perspective.

S3: Mattel, I think just going back to the question around regulation. I know when I was doing the congressional work, one of the things I was always really fascinated by was the AI Futures Act.

S1: The bill was introduced in Congress in twenty seventeen, but never passed. One of its main goals was promoting A.I. as a way to boost U.S. economic prosperity.

S3: And in it, it actually states the priorities of A.I. development for the U.S. and the top priority is to capture the business environment. Just to give you an overview of business, capture is priority number one. Privacy is priority number two, future of work is three and then bias is four. And that was kind of the latter. And it would always be like, but we can’t allow the Chinese to beat us. So it wasn’t that they understood the technology. It wasn’t that they were looking at the impact on society. It wasn’t that they necessarily cared or didn’t care how addictive these technologies were. It was all about. If this is going to be a three to eight trillion dollar opportunity, then how do we make sure China doesn’t get it? And so I would just caution anybody that thinks that in Congress, at least last year, anybody was sitting down and looking at code or thinking about code. That wasn’t the reality. It was more about looking at what the financial projections would be. And then how can we add this to the to the U.S. economy going forward.

S1: Mitali, in your ranking, you talked about alphabet and Google’s A.I. capacities and really its dominance in the landscape. Right. And in particular, it’s trouble recognizing non-white people and what that has done. Tell me about why you wrote about that.

S3: One of the things that really fascinated me in terms of alphabet was just the pure captcha alphabet is everywhere. Whether you are on online search, you’re walking down a street in a city that considers itself smart. Whether you’re watching videos, whether you’re speaking to Google Voice, you can effectively use Google products in every single area of your life. And the underlying algorithms are going to have problems of bias, not because Google is a terrible company or that the computer scientists are racist or anything like that. It’s just the fact that they’re using society. data. And our data has inherent biases.

S1: For example, in 2015, the image recognition algorithm and Google Photos mistakenly and infamously classified black people as guerrilla’s. More recently, Google Health sponsored a study that showed its A.I. was better able to detect breast cancer than radiologists. But the study didn’t track patients race, so it’s impossible to know whether the algorithm is effective in the broader population. All of this makes me think and some of this is a little bit because I covered the financial industry as as Felix did. We are now in a moment where people call it the tech lash, some sort of backlash to the understanding of how pervasive technology is in our lives. And I might classify that as in its infancy. But I wonder when I look at the financial industry going through a big wave of backlash and some regulation, whether public attitude shifts are going to make an impact, even in a moment where, you know, you’ve all been talking about lobbyists and regulation and regulatory capture, just public opinion matter here.

S7: I’m going to say no, really?

S8: I would say I’m going to say no for a really quite technocratic reason, which is that who has the ability to police these things on a global level, the answer is simply no one. And even if people around the world all kind of have this deep.

S10: Post-attack clash, suspicion of tech giants or technology in general. It’s really basically impossible to think how that grassroots suspicion could translate into actual global regulation.

S3: Right. I would I would actually argue the opposite, because I think that when you’re dealing with legislators that have to come up for election and I was working with particular caucus, and their constant question to me was, how is this impacting my constituents and what do my constituents know about this? I’m working with a group here in Brownsville, Brooklyn, who actually got their landlord to walk back the idea that facial recognition was going to be used in rent controlled and partly Section 8 building in a low income community. So as somebody that loves democracy and believes that democracy thrives in dissent. I would definitely say that public public opinion can move elections if this becomes an election issue. Do I think that the ordinary person is going to. Is that going to lead to regulatory change? I think that’s this. I don’t know that I believe that just because we have a representative democracy.

S7: I mean, you just like repeat what I just said just for a second, because, like, I was just talking about the world. Yeah, right.

S10: Like Google’s main A.I.. Asset is DeepMind, which is a UK company.

S7: If they are forced to sell it, they will sell it and it will still be a UK company and someone else will own it and they will still be doing whatever evil things it’s doing. Having grassroots activism in Brownsville, Brooklyn is all well and good for Brownsville, Brooklyn. But in terms of the direction of the planet and the way that this technology is affecting the world, it does basically nothing.

S6: I think that’s so dismissive. Yeah. So the thing is, you know, I think you’re right, too, to make sure that we’re considering the global impact of these companies and not just the kind of U.S. impact, but when we’re thinking about both the impact of U.S. regulation and U.S. dissent and grassroots organizing. We’ve had examples of how that has shifted.

S11: Ladies and gentlemen, today is a great day for California consumers.

S6: The California Consumer Privacy Act is the only reason why we’ve been arguing about federal legislation for the past year.

S11: The legislature, the governor just took a historic step in enacting legislation to protect children and consumers by giving them control of their own personal data.

S6: And some of the biggest companies have just made the decision. Well, you know, screw it. We have to do this anyway. Might as well get the additional PR points of extending it to everybody instead of just California residents.

S7: Well, I guess so. I think you can change companies. I think. GDP in particular, which was in many ways the model for what California did.

S1: We’re talking about the general data protection regulation in Europe.

S7: And that was to oversimplify, not very much the work of Marguerite’s vestberg. Who’s this? You know, force of nature competition regulator in Europe in a very, very aggressively top-down way. She wasn’t responding to grassroots pressure from Portuguese voters. She was just saying, no, this is wrong and I’m going to regulate you guys. And then she did. And then everyone kind of took that as a model.

S3: Right. And I don’t understand why it can’t be both, because this seems to me this just seems like a power struggle, like it can be both.

S1: I want to turn you guys in a very, very different direction. And I guess. Question my own assumptions and slates. We named this the evil list. We played with it.

S3: Are there any companies that stick out to you as maybe, hey, they’re not so bad or they’re doing great things or they’re making big strides in, you know, one of these spaces that people are for or even the framing forced us into this idea that the company is evil or even that they’re doing their job. Because even having written about Alphabet and having been critical of Alphabet, I’m also very open to say if Alphabet’s reason to exist is going to be to increase shareholder value. They’re doing that really effectively. Are banks sitting in that, you know, they’re about to go trillion dollars. So it’s not about them being evil or them being good, it’s about them being an effective company. So just in terms of the phrasing, it certainly was it was a fun exercise. But even having taken part in the exercise, I would never say that I think any company that’s fulfilling its strategic goal is evil. It’s either effective or not.

S6: Yeah. But I mean, I do think that the considerations are different when you look at the higher ups and they’re also different when you consider what they’re being effective at. But I want to I’m gonna be the person who says I think it’s great to go ahead and say sometimes here is what we think is normatively bad. Google is very effective at providing a service that people like with really, really awful side effects that the company has entirely embraced. They’re not alone in that.

S12: You see Facebook, the Amazon go down the rest of the list. It’s not just that the companies that is effective at what it’s doing, but they’re the value or they’re the harm to what they are being effective at.

S13: It’s is worth trying to have a textured conversation. Evil’s a hard word.

S14: I want to thank all of you for debating, agreeing, disagreeing all of that and for contributing to the list. Felix Salmon Battalion, Condé and Lindsay-Abaire. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.

S15: And that’s the show. You can check out the entire evilest at Slate.com. Just search those words or tweet me with what you think we got right or wrong. I’m at Lizzi O’Rielly on Twitter. What next? TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and hosted by me, Lizzie O’Leary, and is part of the larger What Next family. TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. Mary and her team will be back on Monday. Thanks for listening. Talk to next week.