Silicon Valley Has a Big Problem

I have often been called a Silicon Valley apologist, and I don't deny viewing the region as one of the most technologically creative areas of the world. I've seen it evolve from the sleepy fruit orchard of my youth in the early 1950s to a world-class tech center.

In most cases, technology is used for good, but Silicon Valley has had its share of troubling headlines lately, like Facebook accepting ad dollars from hate groups and Russia-linked Pages, massive security breaches, corporate tax issues, and reports of sexual harrasment.

More and more, I see Silicon Valley painted as villains instead of the creative innovators who drive much of our tech breakthroughs and the world economy. It's cast a real pall over the region, and caught the eye of regulatory agencies around the globe.

I have been talking to some industry pioneers who, like myself, have been in Silicon Valley for decades. They are seriously concerned about the tone of Silicon Valley press coverage. In fact, the San Jose Mercury News, our local newspaper, wrote a story last week with the headline: "Silicon Valley's terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad week-ok month."

It quotes Trever Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, who wrote in a recent letter to Mark Zuckerberg that Facebook has "been used as an accomplice in a foreign government's effort to undermine democratic self-governance in the United States." He goes on to ask the social network to "promote democratic engagement [and] be transparent about how foreign actors used that same platform to undermine our democracy."

A few days after that story ran, Facebook announced it would hand over Russia-linked ads to Congress and be more transparent about political ads that appear on its platform.

But that's not the social network's only headache. A ProPublica investigation found that Facebook's self-serve ad platform allowed advertisements to target groups with offensive identifiers, like "Jew haters." COO Sheryl Sandberg said she was "disgusted and disappointed" and announced Facebook would be "strengthening our ads targeting policies and tools."

While I am concerned about the Valley's image, I am also troubled that our engineering-driven world all too often creates products without really understanding how they will affect those in the real world or their long-term impact. Facebook, Google, and Twitter have major virtues, but also serious flaws when it comes to privacy and, more recently, disinformation.

I fear that a day of reckoning is upon us. Big tech companies will be challenged in ways they are not prepared to handle. I don't know how tech will find a way back into the public's good graces, but if they don't find a way to self-regulate and be more ethical, I suspect we will see much more regulatory oversight.

Tim Bajarin is an analyst with Creative Strategies and has served as a consultant to leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Hewlett Packard/Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba, and more.

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