We are essentially being controlled by what I’m calling apex predators.”
That’s how reporter, author, and former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas described the current state of tech companies and their outsize influence on everything from policymaking to privacy laws. “We live in a culture in which we think people who’ve made a lot of money—well, that their thoughts should be law,” said Giridharadas, whose latest book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, looks at how the ultrarich who claim to be saving the world are often just addressing—or distracting from—problems they’ve created. “Sure, [Mark] Zuck[erberg] should be able to have thoughts on public education, but his thoughts shouldn’t have any more weight than he’s able to express through voting.”
Comments like this kept the audience captivated—and, occasionally, cheering—during a recent live taping of Kara Swisher’s Recode Decode podcast at WeWork Now in New York City. Swisher’s guests were Giridharadas and Gabriel Weinberg, CEO and founder of DuckDuckGo, an eponymous search engine that doesn’t track its users, including its eponymous search engine. The trio’s conversation resulted in some powerful tidbits.
‘Giving back is a wingman of taking ruthlessly‘
Winners Take All was born out of Giridharadas’s desire to explore the relationship between extraordinary generosity and extraordinary hoarding. Specifically, he began wondering if it might just be better for society if the ultrarich “just bought yachts” instead of giving. The answer? Sometimes, yes.
To this point, the author looked at families like the Sacklers, owners of Purdue Pharma, who are being sued in multiple states for deceptively marketing the highly addictive drug OxyContin, which is responsible for deaths of thousands of people in the U.S. Until recently, Giridharadas said, the pharmaceutical family was able to buy reputational cover by donating to museums in large cities where the regulators and media reside—not the places that are suffering from their business dealings. But all that giving was just a strategy, said Giridharadas––the glow of the Sacklers’ philanthropy kept regulators from looking too closely. Had the family simply spent extravagantly and selfishly, he said, it’s less likely that they’d have been perceived so positively for so long.
‘But really, ask not what you can do for your country—ask what you’ve done to your country‘
When Swisher asked Giridharadas how people with wealth can make a true difference, he didn’t hesitate. “Stop asking ‘What new thing can I do?’ But really, ask what you’ve done to your country,” said Giridharadas, adding that those with too much money should stop doing what’s harmful, like abusing our privacy or—and this one got a good laugh from the audience—offering free coding classes for women and girls rather than paying women fairly in the first place.
To that end, Giridharadas is optimistic about the public’s awareness of these issues. “Our societal view of this stuff is maturing,” he said, pointing out the positive public reception of Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark public schools in 2010 compared to increased skepticism of Jeff Bezos’s $2 billion in philanthropic donations in the past year.
‘There’s a huge dearth of regulation right now. You’re not going to solve it all at once‘
DuckDuckGo’s search engine runs more than 1 billion searches per month. While that may be a drop in the bucket compared to Google, said Weinberg, the company is profitable, and its success has shown that people are starting to care about digital privacy.
“Privacy is a fundamental human right,” said Weinberg. “Once people understand what’s going on, they want to do something.” While he remains disappointed by the privacy laws in the U.S., he said that small changes and protections are the best way forward. In May, DuckDuckGo even went so far as to propose a bill to stop advertisers from tracking you online. “The Do-Not-Track Act of 2019” campaign gives the Do Not Track standard—which was introduced 10 years ago, but has since been largely abandoned—new legs.
For starters, he said, people should know that their browser has a “Do Not Track” option, which can be flipped on in your software’s “Settings” and is a great first step toward more privacy. Other steps could include bans on behavioral advertising on Facebook, especially for political news, and regulations around facial-recognition technology.
“Writing the [General Data Protection Regulation, a regulation in EU law on data protection and privacy] took 25 years,” said Weinberg, pointing out that that hardly matches the pace of technological change. “I prefer to do it a little at a time, piecemeal-style. It’s better to pass something every year or two and then tweak it as we go.”