In prize fighting, there is a less-than-glorious path to victory known as “steal the round.” Your opponent may pummel you at the start of three minutes of boxing—or even for the first two minutes and 50 seconds—but in the waning moments of the round you come on strong in front of the ringside judges so as to be declared the winner on their scorecards.
It’s a time-honored technique—one might even call it a hack—for overcoming a powerful foe, and its masters have included titans like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. And I’d suggest that steal-the-round strategizing has been crucial, too, for titans like Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, and Sundar Pichai to be judged by the public as victorious, or at least deserving of their enormous power, in the face of angry critics demanding they be taken down.
Repeatedly, when their companies have been accused of misdeeds—allowing disinformation and conspiracy theories to thrive on their platforms, or using their monopoly powers to dominate smaller competitors—they’ve absorbed the blow, conceded the point, and at the last minute, agreed to address the problem by throwing money and employees at it. They have been reactive by design, responding only after journalists have discovered wrongdoing and usually agreeing so quickly that they don’t offer a target to their critics.
Whether in the boxing ring or in politics, however, this strategy wilts in the face of determined, overwhelming opposition. The number of crises seen this week alone—a global pandemic reaching terrible new milestones and a president seemingly at odds with the democratic process—have finally given opponents of the tech companies the tools to successfully challenge how they operate and demand change.
We may well look back at this time as a high-water mark—both in terms of bottom lines as well as their ability to avoid seriously engaging with critics. You can’t offer a hasty, face-saving response to accusations that you promote quack cures for Covid-19, or brag about the exciting new voter-information portal you’ve created as President Trump suggests on social media that he will delay the November election because of made-up concerns about mail-in ballots. The stakes are too high to make a big show for the public and hope to move on.
That the rules of the game have shifted in ways that we will look back as piercing Silicon Valley’s aura of invincibility was apparent on Wednesday when those four leaders—of Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Alphabet—appeared before a House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust. Armed with emails obtained by subpoena and informed by interviews with those who have been devastated by these companies’ overwhelming market power, the members of the subcommittee drilled down to get the executives to admit they used their monopolistic powers to smash any and all competition.
One sharp line of questioning of Zuckerberg by Representative Pramila Jayapal focused on whether Facebook copies the features of its competitors as a means of intimidating them into agreeing to be bought out. Zuckerberg insisted that they were not ruthless capitalists but devoted product developers, whose “job is to make sure we build the best services for people to connect with all the people they care about.” At the end, however, Jayapal curtly concluded: “Facebook’s very model makes it impossible for new companies to flourish separately, and that harms our democracy, it harms mom-and-pop businesses and consumers.”
Much of the hearing was focused on the specific abuse of monopolistic power—aggressive acquisition of potential competitors in the early stages, Google’s promotion of its own content on its search results, or how the price of a box of diapers changed after Amazon acquired the parent company of Diapers.com—but the true target was lack of accountability as an operating principle of these companies. And that has a particular bite during a period of global crisis, during which their digital tools have helped us endure trying circumstances while simultaneously promoting the kind of isolation and misunderstanding that can make emerging from them even harder.
Representative David Cicilline, the chairman of the subcommittee, shifted the conversation to the conspiracies about Covid-19 that flourish on Facebook and didn’t mince words, insisting that the platform contains “deadly content,” that is, content that leads the public to dangerous actions, whether it’s trying unsafe “cures” or resisting prudent measures like wearing a mask. But Zuckerberg’s insistence that Facebook has “a relatively good track record of fighting and taking down lots of false content as well as putting up authoritative information” fails to placate users and legislators when it concerns a plague that has left 150,000 dead and counting, as opposed to, say, leaks of personal data.
To be fair, the major platforms have always insisted that there were two exceptions to their hands-off approach to the hate and misinformation that appear on their platforms: public health and democracy. Until now, they could assume that those third rails wouldn’t be breached in the United States in such harmful and undeniable ways. Facebook, for example, has been credibly accused of aiding genocide in Myanmar, but that was on the other side of the globe; and Amazon and YouTube, as well as Facebook, have helped promote campaigns against vaccination of children, endangering young lives, but at nowhere near the scale of misery from Covid-19. Simply put, there is no moving on from this presidency or pandemic to the next scandal.
In January, Zuckerberg’s close confidant and VP of augmented and virtual reality at Facebook, Andrew Bosworth, wrote a forthright take about his company’s role in getting Trump into office. “So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected?” Bosworth asked. “I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.”
Six months later, with a deadly virus spreading unabated in the United States and a president questioning whether to hold an election, I don’t think Bosworth would again write those words, never mind in such an offhand way. If polls are to be believed, Trump is substantially more disliked, and in more profound ways, now than he was at the beginning of the year. But it is interesting to get a glimpse of Bosworth’s thought process. Citing the moral philosopher John Rawls, he asserts that the “moral way to decide something is to remove yourself entirely from the specifics of any one person involved,” and this reasoning prevents him from “limiting the reach of publications who have earned their audience, as distasteful as their content may be to me and even to the moral philosophy I hold so dear.”
He quickly added the familiar caveats: “That doesn’t mean there is no line. Things like incitement of violence, voter suppression, and more are things that same moral philosophy would safely allow me to rule out.”
Accountability is coming for Big Tech. Not just because Congress had an impressive hearing, but because the confluence of crises now demand action, even by these companies’ own hands-off logic. There is no choice but to reclaim the unchecked power these platforms wield. This is about more than Facebook spreading fake cures and voter suppression; or YouTube sending its users down rabbit holes of conspiracy and hate; or Apple and Amazon becoming so central in how we get news and entertainment, and how we conduct commerce. This is about how a nation protects its people.
Perhaps in better times we could assume the best of these platforms and be swayed by their promises to fix whatever problem crops up, but when our nation is tested as it is now, we can’t accept band-aid fixes and assurances they already have a way to do better next time.
Mike Tyson had a good way of explaining Silicon Valley’s current inadequacy in the face of the crises they’re up against: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Photographs: Graeme Jennings/Getty Images; LMPC/Getty Images
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