The tech industry prides itself on being forward looking and innovative. Enlightened and progressive. As well as its new approach to business.
Except, there are a couple of twists in the descriptions. One is that tech companies can push principles to the side when there’s enough money involved — and that’s been true for decades. The second is on the novelty side and whether all these companies are really something different.
The two concepts come together in the corporate persona on the subject of censorship.
Google, like Facebook and many other tech firms, has insisted that it is not a media company. There are two reasons for this.
One is that media companies get sued because they publish things people dislike or disagree with. But under U.S. law, if a company is only a platform where others publish, there are some big forms of legal protection.
The other reason the companies insist that they aren’t media firms is financial. Investors value tech companies far more than media properties. If they get called publishers, they could see an erosion of their stock value, because investors don’t typically support the same stock price multiples of revenue that tech companies get.
But a Google or Facebook or Instagram or Snap actually does look a lot like a media company in many ways, largely because their big revenue streams are the advertising placed opposite published content. That is a pressure that the companies generally don’t speak about. The less anyone says, the more likely the valuations will remain high.
The two come together in past stories about Google. One is its Dragonfly initiative, a search engine for China that would censor results. The presence of the project has caused some employees to quit, heaps of criticism, and, in response, a reported crackdown on employees, telling them to delete copies of a memo about the venture.
As a reminder, Google used to have a motto, “Don’t be evil,” which it dropped when a restructuring formed a parent company, Alphabet, and replaced with, “Do the right thing.”
The slides are a rare and stark look at Google’s ongoing struggles, which are mirrored by many Silicon Valley tech platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, that now moderate a large swath of human conversation. Essentially, the company is asking itself whether it’s possible to protect against the negative aspects of free speech — violent threats, fake news, bots, trolling, propaganda, and election interference, to name just a few — while promoting a platform that gives everyone a voice. Google says in the presentation that the internet was founded on “utopian principles of free speech,” and that Silicon Valley was largely built under the guiding principles of those ideals.
The company is trying to come to terms with the inevitable. It can say it is a tech company, but it is mostly a business that uses technology to publish and obtain information. That has large implications for investing, regulatory interactions, and other aspects of the company and the entire sector.
Exploring this dichotomy between two industries and the power some of these businesses have should offer rich grounds for future stories.