“Platforms” are the shiniest prizes in the tech business. The reason the five most valuable American tech companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Alphabet and Microsoft — are also the five most valuable American companies of any kind is that they own these fundamental building blocks of the digital economy, whether they are operating systems, app stores, social networks, cloud servers, or shipping and logistics infrastructure.
Think of these platforms as the roads, railroads and waterways of the information economy — an essentially inescapable part of life for any business or regular person who doesn’t live in a secluded cabin in the woods.
For years, despite their growing power, tech platforms rarely garnered much scrutiny, and they were often loathe to accept how much their systems affected the real world. Indeed, the online ethos has been that platforms aren’t really responsible for how people use them. It might as well be the slogan of Silicon Valley: We just make the tech, how people use it is another story.
In 2017, that changed. At first grudgingly and then with apparent enthusiasm, platform companies like Facebook began accepting some responsibility for how they are affecting the real world. They did not go as far as some critics would have liked — but in many significant ways they offered a shift in tone and tactics that suggested they were rethinking their positions.
You could argue that they had no choice. In the past year, social networks and search engines have been blamed for undermining the news media, fostering echo chambers, and spreading misinformation, hate, misogyny and other general social unpleasantness (YouTube, for example, removed lots of videos of kids gets getting pretend-tortured by their parents). There was also, of course, the unfolding saga of the companies’ role in Russia’s propaganda efforts, which resulted in them being hauled before lawmakers.
And then there were the larger questions about who makes the platforms and who benefits from them. The tech industry is overwhelmingly run by men, and it is a place of little racial and class diversity. A whistle-blowing blog post by Susan Fowler, an engineer who detailed a culture of harassment and misogyny at the ride-hailing company Uber, sparked a women’s movement in tech that was then subsumed by the global #MeToo movement.
Many tech titans were obviously unprepared for the serious questions that began coming their way a year ago. When the Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was asked about his site’s role in the 2016 election just days after Donald J. Trump’s victory, he responded with a line from tech’s old playbook: It was a “pretty crazy idea,” he said, that misinformation on Facebook had “influenced the election in any way.”
Now that tone is gone. Mr. Zuckerberg has apologized for his glibness. And during Facebook’s last earnings report to investors, he put the company’s social mission at the top of his agenda. “Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits,” he said.
Several other tech execs have expressed similar commitments to a deeper mission. Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, told my colleague Andrew Ross Sorkin that Apple has a “moral responsibility” to attempt to heal the nation’s social and economic fissures.
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Sure, all this could just be marketing. But I’m inclined to believe the shift represents a new way of navigating the world, for a few reasons.
First, employees are demanding a new way. The highly paid workers of Silicon Valley were lured on the promise of changing the world, and in the past year many became demoralized about their companies’ apparent impact. In some cases they’re pushing their bosses to change.
Second, for the first time in years, there’s real pressure from lawmakers. That has resulted in some real-world retreats. For instance, tech giants last month stopped fighting a bill in Congress that would allow victims of sex trafficking to sue websites that supported the sex trade. In another time, this would have been a gimme for tech companies — they aren’t responsible for how people use their services, remember?
Not this time.