The Robber Barons of Big Tech

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by Veronica Irwin. Published in SF Weekly.

Remember when we thought we were going to make the world a better place?

In the city where Jello Biafra once ran for mayor on a platform that would have required businessmen to wear clown suits, recently graduated engineers arrived wearing jeans and pocket-tees. Like the countercultural icons who came before them, they thumbed their collective noses at the stuffy protocols that had come to dominate the white collar workforce. While New York’s business elite had members-only clubs, local tech CEOs kept a kegerator in the office — right next to the ping-pong table and bean bag chair lounge. The Silicon Valley “campus,” complete with outdoor shopping centers and arcades, replaced the corporate headquarters, and open floor plans dismantled the sterile grid of cubicles.

This was the Left Coast. On this side of the country, the son of a teen mom and a cuban immigrant could rise to become the world’s first trillionaire and a couple of bearded, shaggy college dropouts could build a world-conquering personal computer company while pledging to Think Different.

Silicon Valley social media platforms were as aspirational as they were inspirational. Rather than making money on the backs of the working class, like the oil and railroad tycoons of yesteryear, the titans of tech sought to liberate underserved people around the world and give a voice to the voiceless. In the early days of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, some journalists seized on the idea that Twitter and Facebook were pivotal tools of the revolution. Big Tech was happy to take the credit — positioning itself as the perfect industry for an idealist and progressive Bay Area: it strove for diversity, social justice, and freedom of expression.

But a decade removed from these movements and the hype that surrounded the rise of Web 2.0, the tech industry resembles just about every other major industry that came before it. Like the robber barons of the 21st century, Big Tech has exploited an unregulated market for financial gain, and San Francisco has become the West Coast Wall Street.

What’s more, as the industry has matured — and as its starry-eyed 20-something workforce have grown into 30- and 40-something careerists — it has increasingly engaged in union-busting, electioneering, and the kinds of anti-competitive practices that were first mastered by the likes of J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller.

While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg advocated for more freedom of speech in the United States, his employees trained Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign staff, who turned around and used the social media platform to spread false information and attack the free press. While Elon Musk argues for a “revolt against the fossil fuel industry,” Tesla sells the carbon credits they earn from low emission ratings to other automakers not pulling their weight. Google and Apple are amongst a slew of companies cultivating support in right-wing political circles, and San Francisco social media platforms from Pinterest to Nextdoor has played a role in amplifying everyone from well-intentioned micro-aggressors to outright bigots.

Over the course of this month, these issues have been thrown into stark relief. As Donald Trump attempts to discredit the results of the Nov. 3 election, social analytics platforms like NewsWhip and CrowdTangle show that false claims about voter fraud are amongst the most popular posts on Facebook, despite the platform’s attempts to hamper their virality. The Justice Department sued Google in October for violating antitrust laws, calling the company “monopolistic” in a press release. An increasingly large group of conservatives are joining conspiracy-peddling platforms, like Newsmax and Parler, after convincing themselves that Silicon Valley has an anti-conservative bias. This is all while tech CEOs position themselves as advocates for fairness, competition, and innovation — just a group of men trying to, as Google’s parent company Alphabet might say, “Do the Right Thing.”

Long before Americans cast their ballots, however, 2020 was proving to be a watershed year. This summer, our society began confronting injustice with more unity than ever before: white bodies standing behind Black, straight behind LGBTQ+, non-native behind indigenous. But murals in the street are not the Black Lives Matter movement’s only avenue for change, nor are relief bills the only useful tactic for fighting the systemic ills exposed by COVID-19. Pride doesn’t stop with rainbow flags in June. Despite the successful defeat of Donald Trump, many Americans still feel more work needs to be done. Communities nationwide are following activist’s leads — holding our most powerful systems, and the individuals who benefit from them, to account with specific demands for more equitable practices.

In San Francisco, it’s all eyes on Big Tech. 

S3X Appeal

On Friday, June 19, at 10 a.m., Elon Musk declared Juneteenth a “US Holiday” at his companies Tesla and SpaceX. Workers at the Fremont Tesla plant, many of whom commute via shuttle from as far away as Fresno, had started their shifts over four hours prior.

While at first blush the move may have been written off as a half-assed attempt at generating some good will for the brand, a closer look suggests a more cynical calculation. A Juneteenth rally protesting police brutality generally, and racism specifically at the plant, was planned for 1 p.m. that same day. Many workers who were going to participate, including some of the demonstration’s core organizers, opted to shuttle home rather than wait for hours in the sun until the planned rally time.

Carlos Reymon Gabriel, an assembly line employee, says Musk’s move was a deliberate “effort to undermine the rally.”  In other words, it wasn’t just that Musk had paid lip service to the Black community: he had done so in order to directly thwart the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Issues at Tesla stretch far beyond critiques of racism. The company has also been rumored to engage in union-busting practices for years by Tesla employees and competitors alike. For example, General Motors CEO Mary Barra said Tesla avoided buying a GM factory in Ohio because of UAW representation. Tesla also lost a legal battle in 2019 after company actions were declared illegal under American labor laws, including one of Elon Musk’s own tweets.

Moves like these have led to employee infighting, as workers either get behind Musk’s viral public statements or reject them. And in a moment where individual identity factors heavily into one’s political identity, race, gender, and socioeconomic status have also become flashpoints. The struggle for unionization has a tendency to divide workforces when one demographic needs their paychecks more urgently than another. 

Speaking to factory employees, it can at times feel as if you’re speaking to someone working at the Ford factory in the 1930s. Back then, Ford’s antagonistic stance against organized labor also exacerbated racial tensions on the assembly line. The so-called “Battle of the Overpass” — a particularly violent chapter in the history of the organized labor movement, which unfolded in 1937 — saw Ford’s private police force beat union organizers to a bloody pulp. The clash erupted even as Ford publicly advocated for a wage of $5 per day.

Gabriel believes he was threatened with termination for his own activism. Back in March, after the factory reopened in defiance of Alameda County’s shelter-in-place orders, Gabriel began speaking out at rallies and online about COVID-19 concerns. Tesla told workers at the time that if they wished to stay home for their own safety, they could do so without repercussions. However, the day after speaking to television news crews at a small press conference on June 15, Gabriel was told he had two days to return to work lest he be fired from the plant. “It seems Tesla is against workers for speaking out for health and safety” he later wrote in a tweet

Branton Phillips, a Tesla factory worker whose wife has two preexisting conditions that put her at high risk for hospitalization from COVID-19, said he feels he has no choice but to nag other workers about wearing masks and to speak out to the press. “If I’m not getting what I need, what can I do? I don’t have a union, so I push back,” he says.

It doesn’t help that he works for a man who has publicly downplayed the pandemic and cast doubt upon the efficacy of coronavirus testing even as he begrudgingly admitted over the weekend that he “most likely” had come down with COVID-19. 

Another Tesla employee, Art Taporco, said his supervisors have asked him three times to remove a union sticker he wears, despite there being no company policy on the matter. One of those supervisors told him he was alerted about the sticker by Taporco’s own peers on the assembly line — demonstrating how Tesla’s punitive treatment of workers exacerbates employee infighting. 

Gabriel goes so far as to say the company’s mission to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable technology” is less about saving the planet, and more about making money selling luxury cars. “Tesla was started as a vehicle that would be faster and more efficient than other vehicles and look really sexy” — or “S3XY,” he says, alluding to the message spelled out by the brand’s 4 vehicles: Model S, 3, X, and Y.

Free Speech 2.0

Though Mark Zuckerberg has said that he personally disagrees with many actions of the Trump Administration, he has been criticized extensively for bending user conduct policy to the president’s will. As America approached the November election, an increasing amount of evidence suggested that Facebook had been making exceptions to their platform rules on misinformation and hate speech for the president, allowing him to post content that otherwise would have gotten his posts, if not his entire account, deleted. 

Trump isn’t the only world leader using Facebook to spread disinformation. Nor is he the only leader who has exploited user data and incited violence using the platform. While the company advertised a new newsfeed configuration to help “bring people closer together,” for example, they have also been accused of allowing disinformation and Islamophobia to spark a genocide in Myanmar — a country where Facebook is so dominant, some civilians mistake it for the internet itself. 

When Dr. Anthony Fauci joined Zuckerberg for a Facebook live interview in mid July, the Facebook CEO took an opportunity to criticize the current administration (while managing to avoid mentioning Trump by name). “It’s really disappointing that we still don’t have adequate testing, that the credibility of our top scientists like yourself and the CDC are being undermined, and until recently, that parts of the administration were calling into question whether people should even follow basic best practices like wearing masks,” he said.

It could be that this is the only way Zuckerberg can keep a several-thousand person work force in the progressive Bay Area happy while continuing to survive in an internationally divisive media environment. After all, hundreds of employees staged a virtual walk-out in early June when Zuckerberg refused to fact-check the president’s posts.

In response to pressures like these, Facebook pledged to bar all political ads in the week before the election. And yet, the platform — along with other social media services — was, and continues to be, a powerful tool for spreading misinformation. Even as every major media outlet projects that Joe Biden is America’s president-elect, the Trump camp, and its supporters, continue to spread and gobble up baseless conspiracy theories about dead voters, disappeared ballots, and some nonsense about Sharpies. 

If you’re cynical about Big Tech, it’s hard to see Zuckerberg’s dualism as anything but an attempt to take home the biggest paycheck possible. Republican Senators and Congressmen have not been shy about pointing to any attempt by tech companies to fact check the president as evidence of Silicon Valley’s liberal bias; at the same time, the numbers show that posts from right wing pundits, like Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro, consistently generate the most traffic. Taking a meaningful stand against our outgoing president would be risky, and could cut into Facebook’s bottom line.

In the face of such criticism, Zuckerberg has repeatedly argued that Facebook is just a “platform,” merely mirroring society’s preexistent ills. He’s staunchly taking one side in a debate which has existed in academia for decades: does technology determine the course of societal evolution, or does society determine the way technology evolves? The fact that this is still a debate suggests that Zuckerberg’s “platform” claim has some credibility. 

However, a vast majority of scholars agree now that the answer lies somewhere in between — that though Zuckerberg can’t be held responsible for everything that happens on Facebook, the rules he sets certainly impact the course of political debate, often pushing it rightward. The algorithms used by companies like Google, Google subsidiary YouTube, Facebook, and the like promote inflammatory content, and that content has been shown to be disproportionately false and conservative. These algorithms, in turn, normalize such content, forcing pundits, journalists, and everyday Americans to integrate extremist arguments into mainstream dialogue. This is the phenomenon that allows for figures like Trump’s initial chief strategist Steven Bannon — who recently called for the beheading of Anthony Fauci, and built his fame in right wing media echo chambers — to hold major positions in Republican campaigns without Americans batting an eye. 

Civil Rights leaders and major companies are now calling for Facebook to adopt a set of policies fighting hate speech as well as disinformation on the platform under the campaign Stop Hate For Profit. Locally, a petition launched in early July calling to rename Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, given the CEO’s name after he and his wife gave $75 million to the hospital’s foundation in 2015, reached over 1,000 signatures. On July 23, San Francisco Supervisors Gordon Mar and Matt Haney introduced a resolution condemning the labeling of SF General Hospital with the CEO’s name, saying that “Facebook’s policies do not reflect San Francisco’s values and commitment to affirming and upholding human rights, dignity, and social and racial justice.” The next week, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to put a “CEO tax” on the November ballot which would increase taxes for executives who make more than 100 times that of their median worker’s salary, and would raise upward of $140 million for the city. The tax, formally titled the Overpaid Executives Tax, passed with a nearly 30 percent margin. 

The original petition was written by Andrea Buffa, a San Francisco nonprofit leader who is currently communications director at the Prevention Institute, and Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of the media advocacy group Media Alliance. Rosenberg says they are targeting the hospital’s name right now because of the recent spread of public health disinformation on the Facebook platform. According to its website, the hospital and trauma center has a stated mission of “serving anyone in need,” and functioning as the city’s “safety net.” 

“It’s a place where Zuckerberg went out and formed a relationship based on money and labeled this tax-payer funded public health entity as something that he was a part of — this is at the same time that you could say his platform is undermining public health,” summarizes Rosenberg. Supervisor Gordon Mar echoed these sentiments in a press release. “We deeply appreciate the original donation, but it shouldn’t have ever come with permanent advertising rights on this public hospital that belongs to the people of San Francisco,” he said. Several months later, Zuckerberg’s name remains, mainly because a vote on Haney and Mar’s resolution was postponed until after the election. 

One would think that, by now, we have learned to not be fooled by charitable donations from the uber-rich. After all, Andrew Carnegie, known in part for bloody union-busting tactics, donated his riches to what was dubbed an “intellectual breadline” for the working poor by way of an unprecedented Washington, D.C. public library. Like Carnegie, Zuckerberg is one of the nation’s most prolific philanthropists, giving billions to causes ranging from social equity to public health. That does not mean that his company doesn’t simultaneously fuel the flames of racism and spread dangerous lies about the coronavirus.

Rosenberg says the petition is intended to “bring the struggle,” including that of the No Hate for Profit campaign, “home to Facebook’s territory.” Media Alliance has been speaking out as part of the San Francisco Bay Area Protest Facebook Coalition since January of this year. Initial protests focused mostly on Facebook’s regulation of 2020 campaign ads and perpetuation of racist hate speech on the platform. Rallies have been held outside Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters and Mark Zuckerberg’s pied a terre in Dolores Heights. The group also projected phrases like “stop lies on Facebook” onto the side of Facebook’s San Francisco offices the night before their 2020 shareholders meeting. 

Rosenberg, like the employees at Tesla, believes that Facebook is more concerned with profits than the liberal values it touts. Fifteen years after the birth of social media, it’s hard to see their impact on the city in a positive light. When Zuckerberg emphasizes freedom of speech, she says he is shirking responsibility for the way his platform inhibits discourse: a “free marketplace of ideas,” does not work if users are stuck in information silos. Simultaneously, “free speech,” is great branding for a company headquartered just a short drive from the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, UC Berkeley. 

“I think it’s very obvious that tech took a lot of that language, that culture that you could call the ‘Bay Area Counter-Culture,’ and took it upon themselves,” Rosenberg says. “They were talking counter-culture, but really what they were doing was buying each other up.”

A Bad Gig

Unlike the aforementioned companies, Uber is largely credited with creating its own financial sector: the “gig economy.” Uber’s “fleet,” made up of thousands of employees carrying food and passengers in their own vehicles, is regularly blasted by the pro-labor camp for underpaying and under-insuring its workforce. Uber markets these jobs as a liberatory opportunity to “be your own boss,” and “set your own hours.” And although Uber executives now essentially promise their shareholders they will become a monopoly, Mike Isaac’s novel Super Pumped outlines in great detail how ex-CEO Travis Kalanick’s disdain for the taxi cab monopoly motivated their growth in early years. 

The coronavirus pandemic has made us more reliant on the gig economy than ever before: gig workers bring us our take-out, transport those of us without a car who don’t want to hop on public transit, and even pick up our groceries. Uber’s quick onboarding process and flexible hours have also made it a last-ditch income opportunity for the unemployed. Simultaneously, the coronavirus pandemic has made us examine structural inequality more closely than before, and calls for better pay and benefits for low-wage workers have taken off nationwide. While the fact that some workers make more on unemployment than they do at their jobs sparked calls for a higher minimum wage, Uber’s treatment of gig workers in California has earned the company condemnation from political and cultural leaders spanning from president-elect Joe Biden to women’s rights attorney Gloria Alfred. 

California Assembly Bill 5 was passed in September of last year with the explicit intention of regulating companies like Uber — forcing them to classify their workers as employees, with all the associated protections, rather than just independent contractors. But Uber didn’t comply, and found itself embroiled in a lawsuit with the state over accused wage theft. As a result, Uber (alongside Lyft) threatened to suspend operations in the state. 

Uber, Lyft, and Doordash ultimately poured over $47.5 million a piece into the campaign for Prop. 22, which will allow the companies to permanently keep their employees as independent contractors in the state. The “Yes on 22” campaign was the most expensive in California’s history after the companies collectively gave $70 million to their cause on Labor Day — the irony of which was not lost on the opposition. Despite the fact that the No on 22 campaign was funded largely by organized labor, the Proposition was sold by its proponents as saving “hundreds of thousands of jobs,” and protecting the independence of app-based drivers to “choose to work as independent contractors.” Critics say the companies proved with that argument that their business model is dependent on worker exploitation. Now, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is also arguing for a “third way” of regulating gig work, using the model laid out in Prop 22 in other states around the country — a move those fearful of Uber’s monopolistic political power see as frightening overstep.

The language of Prop. 22 will be familiar to history buffs. In the late 1800s, industrialists adapted language and arguments used just a few decades earlier by abolitionists in order to argue for “freedom of contract.” However, in this example, “freedom” was twisted to mean freedom of choice rather than freedom from oppression — an act of rhetorical jiu jitsu that big business used to fight government intervention under the guise of societal advancement. This logic was used against far more than freed slaves, however. According to Sven Beckert in his book The Monied Metropolis, “bourgeois New Yorkers redefined republicanism itself as endorsing permanent proletarianization: while laborers still saw wage work as destroying the ‘independence’ essential to workers as citizens … elite New Yorkers emphasized ‘freedom of contract,’ as the principal freedom of the Republic.” Such ideas still linger in the language of “right-to-work” laws today and are central to Uber’s argument for a gig economy.

Top to bottom, working for Uber means committing to financial instability billed as opportunity and freedom. For investors and ambitious CEOs, that means thrilling risk and the potential for industry dominance. For couriers, however, that instability means not knowing if they’ll be able to make rent. Liberatory ideas of flexible schedules and self-employment are used to disguise below-minimum hourly wages. In the Bay Area, the gig economy is just one more way tech is exacerbating large economic divides. 

CODE COMPLETION

Web 2.0 was supposed to signify a liberatory shift in tech. While the launch of AOL massively changed how we access information, Web 2.0, which focused on social media and mobile technology, allowed everyday people to fully participate in the internet’s expansion by posting their own content. This phase of technological history was not supposed to be written by a few wealthy brainiacs. It was supposed to be written by all of us. Instead, it created some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, who left their progressive ideals in the early 2000s with their baggy sweats and Harvard hoodies.

That isn’t to say Web 2.0 is all bad. Since shelter-in-place orders were handed down in March, San Franciscans have been more dependent on technology to keep us connected and entertained. “Doom Scrolling,” has become a part of our vocabulary after we all started spending hours upon hours on social media platforms to stay informed. We order our take-out from gig workers, and we hop in a rideshare instead of a bus. And many of us found an unexpectedly hopeful escape in watching Musk and NASA’s Falcon 9 rocket blast off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare America’s deepest inequities from housing, to policing, to labor. It has made us realize the importance of a social safety net, and a government that holds itself and the market accountable to the American people’s needs. Most of all, it’s made us ask whether business success should ever have been confused with an ability, or intention, to do what’s best for the rest of us.

As we draw near the end of a hellish year — marked by political division, social upheaval, a global pandemic, and historic wildfires (both here and in Australia) — many of us are looking to truly find ways to make a difference.

And the tech companies?

They’re doing just fine with business as usual. While COVID-19 wiped out small businesses and forced many to choose between risking their health or losing their income, those working in the information economy largely got to stay home and keep their jobs. Some even benefitted from other perks — like stipends for home office furniture, or the option to continue collecting their San Francisco salaries while relocating to less expensive locales. A sizable portion of Airbnb’s workforce was let go with a generous severance package and the knowledge that plenty of other tech companies would be happy to snap them up.

Meanwhile, many of the tech firms that helped drive up the cost of living in San Francisco may be over it.

Twitter — which the city infamously courted with the so-called “Twitter Tax Break” in 2011 — is looking for sub-tenants to rent space in its Market Street headquarters while its employees ride out the pandemic at home. Out in Central SoMa, a planned $6 billion 230 acre development is up in the air after Pinterest announced that it would be pulling out and locating jobs outside of the city. Payment processing company Stripe, which has one of the most highly-anticipated IPOs of 2020, has moved to South San Francisco where the taxes are lower. Meanwhile, the restaurants, florists, and other storefronts which catered to employees on their lunch breaks downtown are rapidly closing their doors, impacted by both the tech exodus and the pandemic.

Like any industry, a lack of regulation and public scrutiny has allowed the titans of tech to enrich their salaried employees, investors, and administrators. Capitalism is a system ripe for exploitation, and figures like Mark Zuckerberg, Dara Khosrowshahi, and Elon Musk have become experts at abusing it. In fact, they are so successful because of their ability to cloak themselves in our region’s progressive rhetoric and deceive the public into believing they do exactly the opposite — that is, making the world a better place… for themselves.

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