What does it mean for a company to be decent or indecent, much less good or evil?
Corporations are amoral by nature. For decades, most have put shareholders first. Tech companies have emphasized long-term growth over short-term returns or raw profitability – and, in any case, they have largely done well by their investors.
My goal here is to evaluate Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon on practical terms, not moral terms. How should consumers handle their relationships with these companies? Unless you’re ready to become a hermit, there’s no escaping big tech. These companies have become so inextricable from our daily lives that in some cases, we have only to choose the lesser of evils – or, as the case may be, which of these amoral behemoths best suit our individual needs and values.
So consider this a guide to living with the leviathan. To that end, I’ve evaluated each of these big tech companies in terms of privacy, trustworthiness, fairness, and impact. I’ll tell you more about how I assessed those criteria in a moment. But first, let’s see those scores:
Here’s how I interpret those four broad fronts:
The internet as we know it is built on the exploitation of privacy. But it doesn’t have to be, and some companies treat consumer privacy with greater care than others.
A company that scores well on privacy puts users in control of their personal information. Key to that, in my view, is informed consent. If a company is going to collect information on its users, it should tell them clearly what data it is collecting and how it will use that data. It should also give users the right to say no, as well as controls over what data is collected and how it may be used.
Can you trust this company? I break that core question down into two more sets of questions:
- Is the company responsible with users’ data? How often has customer data been leaked, stolen, exposed, or given away without the users’ knowledge? And how does the company respond when these events happen?
- Is the company honest – to users, to other businesses, to elected leaders, to the public? How often, and at what scale, do they lie or mislead people? Can you take them for their word?
A company that scores well on trustworthiness is both a responsible caretaker for its customers’ information, as well as a company with a track record of honesty.
Fairness means economic fairness, in this case. Is this company a monopoly? Can people choose a viable alternative? How has the company treated other companies, especially those smaller than it?
To get where they are today, each of the major tech companies have pursued a growth strategy that once upon a time was tenacious but now might be better described as relentless. Many tech startups pride themselves on ‘disrupting’ existing industries and systems, regardless of whether ‘disruption’ is a net good for the world. But there is a difference, in any case, between five coders in a garage disrupting an established industry versus a trillion-dollar company muscling into new sectors or extracting rents from the extensive markets they control.
Impact might seem the broadest and most nebulous of these four categories, and in a sense, it is. Here I ask my broadest question: How has this company affected its workers and customers, as well as the people who don’t use their products? These three buckets include everyone – and in that sense, I’m talking about impact on society.
Each of these companies has shaped our lives, whether or not you use their services. How would they shape the world, as they continue to grow uncontrolled? Based on their record, what can we surmise about their vision of the future?
These findings are not the be-all, end-all, by any means. Your own decisions are yours alone; I only hope to offer clear information on the complicated, compromised world of big technology.