Silicon Valley’s Big Three Grapple With Responsibilities Of Growth

A common goal of tech startups is a Silicon Valley mantra: Change the world.

Apple, Google, and Facebook have done so—possibly more than any other upstart companies in recent U.S. history. These now-mature businesses are grappling with how their world-changing ventures have broadly affected the economy and communications. And in the prevailing populist mood, the American public may be more inclined to hold these mega-firms responsible for less than desirable outcomes—fairly or not.

All three tech giants came under the spotlight this week, facing different issues of public concern.

—–Apple CEO Timothy Cook surprised CNBC “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer by announcing on the show Wednesday that Apple plans to devote $1 billion to a fund supporting the development of advanced manufacturing capabilities in the United States.

The new initiative addresses a sore spot in the narrative of Apple’s meteoric rise—the charge that it sends its manufacturing jobs to China and other locations where wages are much lower and working conditions are suspect. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump called Apple out for exporting jobs, and a Bloomberg feature last week focused on a huge iPhone manufacturing plant in Shanghai, where Apple maintains it has curbed alleged use of excessive overtime. But a watchdog group cited in the story, China Labor Watch, says workers must still work overtime just to meet their living expenses.

With his sudden announcement this week, Cook didn’t promise to spend part of Apple’s new $1 billion fund to build iPhone factories in the United States. But the CEO said Apple will help create high-tech manufacturing jobs here, and hinted at the method. He said Apple is in talks to invest in an unnamed company, and may make an announcement about it later this month, according to CNBC’s write-up of the interview with Cramer.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Do you think it’s a company’s job to create jobs?’ and my response is [that] a company should have values because a company is a collection of people,” CNBC quotes Cook from the interview.

“And people should have values, so by extension, a company should. And one of the things you do is give back,” Cook said. “So how do you give back? We give back through our work in the environment, in running the company on renewable energy. We give back in job creation.”

Apple, with 80,000 U.S. employees, says it has already given rise to a total of two million jobs in the United States. It makes this case on a company website that now includes a state-by-state breakdown of the number of its staff members, stores, and suppliers, who make their own hires. The Apple employee count just unveiled ranges from its 36,786 workers in California to its four in North Dakota. Austin, TX, has 6,000 Apple employees, the company’s second-largest complement in the world.

Apple also takes credit for 1.5 million jobs arising from its “App store ecosystem.” That would include app developers, but also non-tech staffers such as restaurant workers who benefit from the spending related to apps, as Associated Press reporters Michael Liedtke and Christopher Rugaber wrote in a story about Apple’s increasing drive to showcase its contributions to the American economy. In the AP story, Diane Swonk, CEO of DS Economics, says Apple is stretching its app ecosystem job claims too far.

Facebook has built a virtual community of almost two billion people, serving as a digital mailbox, a bulletin board, a TV station, and a news outlet of commanding reach. But in addition to sharing positive content—- from family milestones to important policy discussions—-Facebook has unintentionally broadcast live murders on video, fake news about political candidates, and stolen photos of undressed women Marines.

On Wednesday, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg accepted broader responsibility to regulate criminal and offensive behavior in the online community by pledging to add 3,000 more staffers to a global community operations team of 4,500.

“Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen people hurting themselves and others on Facebook—either live or in video posted later,” Zuckerberg wrote in a company blog post. “It’s heartbreaking, and I’ve been reflecting on how we can do better for our community. If we’re going to build a safe community, we need to respond quickly.”

The surveillance obligations Zuckerberg describes go beyond taking down things like racist and violent videos from the site. They also extend to coordinating with outside agencies to change real-world outcomes.

“We’ll keep working with local community groups and law enforcement who are in the best position to help someone if they need it—either because they’re about to harm themselves, or because they’re in danger from someone else,” Zuckerberg wrote.

The obligation to patrol the communications of billions of people is daunting, although artificial intelligence technologies could provide a big assist, Zuckerberg has said. But even expert human lawyers could have a hard time drawing up reliable rules that would banish a murder filmed by the killer, but keep video of the police shooting of a suspect available on the site because it informs the public about the actions of its government.

Even subtler are the distinctions between fair comment protected by the First Amendment and an offense such as libel or cyberbullying.

Beyond those dilemmas, though, Facebook has been accused of creating new kinds of societal jeopardy with algorithms that detect user preferences and feed back similar content to those users that may confirm their biases, or simply insulate them from a broader view of the world.

It’s a problem that bright programmers might have a good time tackling.

Google, a perennial target of hackers because people conduct so much of their lives and work through its e-mail and other services, reacted to a big breach of its defenses this week.

One of Google’s Twitter accounts, @googledocs, sent out a brief alert at 1:08 pm Wednesday: “We are investigating a phishing email that appears as Google Docs. We encourage you to not click through & report as phishing within Gmail.”

As Recode described the situation in a headline three hours later:

“A massive Google Docs hack is spreading like wildfire”

Hackers impersonating Google Docs had sent deceptive e-mails inviting victims to look at a Google Doc allegedly shared with them by people or organizations the targets knew. The unfortunates who clicked through the scam messages opened their entire Google accounts to the bad guys, who could then re-broadcast the malicious message to all the victims’ contacts.

John Wilson, field CTO at cybersecurity company Agari, wrote in an analysis that the hack was very effective because it didn’t use malware or other methods that would be picked up by cybersecurity defenses.

“While we haven’t seen reports of fraud yet, the cybercriminals who launched the attack have access to all of the victims’ emails until the app is disabled,” Wilson wrote. “With that access, the criminals can use your identity to scam co-workers or relatives, reset your bank account password and steal money or harvest information to steal the victim’s identity. There are an infinite number of ways a cybercriminal can monetize this kind of access.”

Google sent word via Twitter by 3:20 pm that it had removed the fake pages and malicious accounts used in the attack. Then it responded to the flood of tweets—–like a chorus of digital wails—from people who had fallen for the spoofing scam and clicked. The company tweeted out an address to go to for help deleting the app still controlling the victims’ data.

Among the responses to Google’s advice was a particularly poignant tweet from @ladyaeva.

“how do we know you’re the real google doctors,” she wrote.

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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