Author Franklin Foer on Controlling the Power of Big Tech
Franklin Foer is the author of World Without Mind, a critique of the power held by the big tech companies, and the way it is used in our lives. He recently discussed the book with WIRED Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Thompson at the Berkeley Art Museum. Edited excerpts follow:
Nicholas Thompson: Your book is very critical of the technology industry. But in the beginning, it briefly describes a hopeful vision for the ways that technology could bring people together. Do you think that the outcome we have now was inevitable? Can you make the argument that there was a fork in the road at some point, or a mistake that somebody made?
Franklin Foer: There’s no reason why there needs to be one search engine or one social network or one store that we buy all of our crap from. It’s possible to imagine a world in which there’s actually competition. So part of it has to do with the moment that the internet was born. Not only did it have an idea of itself, a utopian aspiration, but the internet was privatized [in the late 1980s] at a moment when we thought of government as getting in the way, when regulation was something that could only slow down innovation.
NT: Explain what you don’t like about our friends at Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. Because your argument is more complex than it’s sometimes portrayed.
FF: My argument is that these companies occupy a very important place in our democracy, that these companies stand between us and information, that these companies are different than the monopolies that had gone before, for a couple different reasons: One is that they aspire to encompass everything. And that sounds conspiratorial and that sounds crazy, but consider: Google started off as the company that was going to organize knowledge. Well, that wasn’t an ambitious-enough mission for Google. And so they’ve branched into building self-driving cars and a life-sciences company. Amazon set out to be the everything store, but that’s just small potatoes. So they power the cloud. They’re a movie studio. They own your organic grocery store now. And that goal I think is ultimately most visible in the way in which they want to become your personal assistant: They want to wake you in the morning and they have their little boxes with their artificial intelligence that you’re in conversation with all across the day.
Now these things are amazing and these are incredible efficiencies and, in a lot of ways, they’ve made our lives much better. But the argument of my book is: Just because these companies have delivered fantastic things for us, and just because we can look at them as incredible innovations, doesn’t mean that we should be blind to the dark side.
NT: I have to ask about antitrust. Frank is like a friend of mine who wrote a book about al-Qaeda that came out like right before 9/11. I mean this is really good timing. Frank puts out his book like right at the moment when all the world starts to focus on antitrust.
FF: It’s kind of funny because when I started, I felt like people looked at me weird when I said I was going to write a book critical of these companies. But now, a guy on the radio the other day accused me of mouthing conventional wisdom.
NT: The problem with antitrust is that traditionally under American law, you have to make things bad for consumers. And these companies make things great for consumers. Google is free. Facebook? I haven’t ever paid a penny to Facebook. Amazon? They’re cutting prices left and right.
In your book, you lay out Brandeis’s view. You say that if Brandeis were around today, he would want you to think these companies were too large. But you don’t say what to do. And that is the one thing I wanted from your book that you don’t have in there. What exactly should the United States do about antitrust with these companies?
FF: I say that they should consider breaking up the companies—I admit that I hedged on that probably more than I should have. But the problem you’re describing is very, very real. So, when we think about monopoly, we think about one thing right now in American law, which is prices. That wasn’t always the case. Antitrust was essentially invented by Louis Brandeis, [who] was concerned about was preserving competitive capitalism. He just hated the idea that gigantic firms would squash markets. The reason that he feared big companies was that the people who worked for big companies would have no other place to go; they’d be stuck working for their employer, and if their employer told them to vote in an election one way, they would follow the lead of their employer. He cared about bigness because he cared about democracy, and it was connected to his ideas about privacy. That was a view of antitrust that reigned until the 1960s when Judge Robert Bork, he of that funky beard, wrote an article saying that the reason we have antitrust laws is because we care about consumer welfare. And that became the mantra. We care about monopoly because we want prices to be low. That was something that the left and the right signed on to.
Well then, fast forward to the present. As Nick suggests, if you look at these companies and you’re just judging them on the basis of price, they’re awesome. Who can complain about the price that Google is charging you? Or who can complain about Amazon’s prices; they are simply lower than the competition’s. And that’s why I think we need to shift back to a more Brandeisian conception of antitrust, where we consider values other than simply efficiency and low prices. If we think about the threat that the size of these companies poses, I think we would find that they threaten other values that we hold dear. Not just the question of privacy, but I think there’s an argument to be made that the reason that these companies have thrived and achieved the status that they’ve achieved is that they have collected more and better data than their competitors, which creates the incentive to surveil even more, and to collect more data in order to preserve their competitive position.
This goes back to something that I first observed as a writer: I wrote a book for Hachette, which is a big French publishing concern that was locked in a struggle with Amazon over ebook prices. And Amazon just bullied the hell out of Hachette. They stripped “buy” buttons off of Hachette authors’ books. They redirected searches to authors who weren’t Hachette authors but who’d written books on the same subject. I saw this, and I thought: As a writer, I am dependent on Amazon. Amazon is the biggest bookstore in the world. And their size and their power is allowing them to treat producers badly. Ultimately, I think we need to shift to a paradigm where we’re thinking about producers as well as consumers.
NT: Is the conclusion then that one gets to A) split those darn companies up—let’s make Amazon three competitive sellers, or we’ll split it into six companies, two grocery companies two book companies, etc. Or another possibility is B) We’re going to regulate these guys. We’re going to limit the amount of surveillance they can do. We’re going to limit the amount of data they can have. Or we’re going to mandate that they have to share the data that they have?
FF: All of the above. Why do I have to choose? I think we do want to consider breaking them up, but it’s also so hard to get to that point from where we are. The important point, and this is what I take away from Brandeis, ultimately, is that you want there to be countervailing powers, that when you have an enormous concentration of power here, it needs to be met with some other force. Let’s start with the immediate one: Mark Zuckerberg should have to testify before the Senate. If you’re Mark Zuckerberg, nobody has ever really challenged your worldview, and now you have a lot to answer for when it comes to fake news and foreign meddling in an election, and you have to be held to account. Your worldview should be challenged, especially given your power. So ultimately, it probably is healthier if Google’s search business was culled from some of its other businesses.
NT: There’s something happening, the approval ratings of the tech companies have always been at like 90 percent, and now they’re dropping.
FF: I think elite opinion is starting to shift pretty quickly. The election certainly caused elites to fundamentally rethink Facebook. And Facebook now faces critics on Capitol Hill and in various pockets of mainstream media that it didn’t face before. I think that within the Democratic Party, as the Democratic Party tries to come up with a response to Trump, and tries to find a way to channel the populism of the moment, I think that the Democratic party is suddenly open to antitrust and to complaints about monopoly that it would’ve never uttered—
NT: Slightly open. I mean, you’ve seen their donor base. The Democratic Party is going to tie itself in knots over the next four years because there’s going to be a whole faction of it that is reliant on Silicon Valley money and there’s a whole bunch of it that’s going to be like, “Oh maybe we do the populist thing and get antitrust in Silicon Valley.” It’s going to be really interesting political realignment.
FF: I agree, and I actually think it’s going to split the left and it’s going to split the right, ultimately. I shouldn’t admit this to a Berkeley audience, but when you’re selling books, you go places that you wouldn’t necessarily go, and I’ll admit that I went on Fox News to talk about my book. And there was complete agreement and openness with my critique of these companies, which comes from a corporate position because Rupert Murdoch is an old-fashioned newspaper hack who hates Google and hates Facebook for reasons that I articulate in my book. So I do think that on the right, there is a wing of the populist right that doesn’t like monopoly. That it’s consistent. It fears concentrations of power in government and also it fears private concentrations of power [in business].
NT: Let’s talk about another one of the big themes in your book which is journalism. You make the argument in your book that actually the tech companies are happy about the troubles of the journalism industry. I’ve talked to lots of these technology executives about the extent that they take responsibility for the financial troubles of journalism and they seem very regretful. Facebook is starting all the journalism initiatives. Facebook really does seem to be questioning its role. And secondly, you know I worked at the New Yorker prior to Wired, and one fundamental way we made money was through targeted Facebook advertising. Identifying readers and based on demographics and reading habits who would be likely subscribers to the New Yorker. Facebook was an amazing tool. So how do you respond to my claim that, actually, these technology companies, if used properly and harnessed correctly could be a great boon for journalists. And, secondly, elaborate on the sense that I got from your view that you think technology companies take pleasure in the decline of the journalism industry.
FF: I’ll answer the second part first. I’m just reading Jeff Bezos. I’m reading the way a lot of technology executives have decried “gatekeepers” and “traditional media,” and that one of the promises of “new media” was that it would break the chokehold that old media companies had on public opinion. So I think that, initially at least, they took some gleeful pleasure in causing pain to old media.
But if you look at Jeff Bezos, up until the moment he buys The Washington Post, and becomes Old Media, he talks about a world filled with gatekeepers, and he’s really angry about it. He feels like the old gatekeepers were just not responsive to markets, that they didn’t get it, that they were just choking innovation.
Basically the world needs gatekeepers. Especially right now, there’s so much information there’s no way that we are able to sort through all of the ubiquitous information in the world unless somebody imposes order on it and gives it a sense of hierarchy. Once upon a time, gatekeepers were newspaper publishers and magazine editors and people who ran radio stations and news networks. And they decided what went above the fold and what went on page A10.
Enter these new gatekeepers, and the new gatekeepers argue that the old gatekeepers were just self-protective: They wanted power and they were making decisions that enhanced their power, but meanwhile there was all this innovation in industry and diversity that was out there kind of waiting to explode. If only we could break their monopoly on power. And what we really needed were gatekeepers that were responsive to the market.
So what happens is, with Google and Facebook and Amazon, you have people who become very, very powerful gatekeepers. Yet, because they view themselves as responsive to the market, they don’t behave like gatekeepers. They deny the fact that they’re gatekeepers. They don’t want any responsibility for what they’ve done. That kind of encapsulates the mess that Facebook’s in with regards to these Russian ads.
NT: Your book is about Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon. There’s a lot about Google. There’s a lot about Facebook. There’s a lot about Amazon. There’s not very much about Apple in your book. Is my hypothesis correct that there’s not more about Apple because it doesn’t violate most of the principles that are most dear to you in the book?
FF: I think your hypothesis is partially correct, that Apple at least tries on some of these basic issues. But I do blame Apple for the core problem which is that this thing in my pocket is the basis for all of this distraction, which is at the core of my book. When I was writing it, I probably just didn’t appreciate how the phone—it’s almost trite to say the phone is the basis for a lot of these problems, and maybe that’s one of the reasons I didn’t say it. But the truth is that I don’t know how many times a day I check my phone, and I think I would be horrified to know the answer to that question. I think there are apps you can use to measure that.
NT: All right, so here we are. Break up Apple?
FF: Break up Apple, split the Apple, core the Apple. Yeah, I don’t know what about it — the things I want to do to Apple are make it pay its taxes. It’s great that they care about privacy and that they have ad-blocking mechanisms. I want them to make all of those things more of a default position. And even if they’re good about data and privacy, or better than the other guys, I still don’t think they’re good. I don’t know what the right antitrust application is for Apple. I don’t know if it deserves to be broken up. It faces a lot of competition. Its is a more competitive marketplace than some of the other companies.
NT: But you worry about them as much as you worry about Google, Facebook, Amazon?
FF: Do you want me to list you the hierarchy of evil?
FF: So I’d say Facebook, to me, would rank as the company that troubles me the most. Amazon is probably the company that troubles me second-most. Google troubles me third-most. And Apple troubles me fourth-most.
NT: There it is: Frank Foer’s Hierarchy of Evil. That’s the perfect note to end on.