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Have the Tech Giants Grown Too Powerful? (nytimes.com)
229 points by clumsysmurf 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 151 comments



The "tech giants" are creating and controlling core forms of communication, both interpersonal and broadcast/public. That's too important and fundamental to the health of society to allow it to be arbitrarily engineered, filtered, and slanted for maximizing profit.

If they were acting like common carriers, it would be a completely different issue. But they're not; they have business models that necessitate the manipulation of communication.


I don't buy this argument.

The internet providers are de facto pretty close to the common carrier status (except maybe in cases of huge scale, like Netflix or google, where explicit net neutrality might be desirable). There are no huge technical or financial barriers to entry if you want to build a platform for communication over the internet, nothing comparable to e.g. telecom networks (either in 1950s or now).

The cost of acquiring a millions-strong audience, operating at that scale, and becoming essential for large swaths of society can be pretty low, both in financing and manpower; if Instagram is not a good example for you, take more extreme examples of Wikipedia or SciHub.

Would you like newspapers (e.g. that very NYT) be governmentally regulated because they are "too important for society"? It's dangerously close to the late Soviet Union. How effective NYT would be e.g. in uncovering the Watergate case were they regulated "for the common good"?

There's a particular fallacy that makes people think that some centralized regulation would be more efficient and lead to better outcomes than self-regulation on a level playing field. The efficiency is there in very few cases, mostly those that seriously defy common sense (e.g. control over antibiotics), or set safety guidelines against mass illness (e.g. food safety control). In most other cases, a bureaucratic body has as skewed incentives as a for-profit corporation, but much fewer reasons to improve anything.


>Would you like newspapers (e.g. that very NYT) be governmentally regulated because they are "too important for society"? It's dangerously close to the late Soviet Union. How effective NYT would be e.g. in uncovering the Watergate case were they regulated "for the common good"? There's a particular fallacy that makes people think that some centralized regulation would be more efficient and lead to better outcomes than self-regulation on a level playing field.

I don't really want media companies regulated too heavily, I want them broken up into many smaller companies. Same thing for big banks and big agriculture and the pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies and for data-harvesting tech companies like Google and Facebook. Break them up, force them to compete. I think to the extent that regulation is necessary in tech it should be regulating a common standard by which you can export your social media profile and move it to any other and then mandating complete access to all information a company has on me and a minimum damage value for all information leaks (say $10 per person).

Not every regulation has to be a giant bureaucratic mess. Instead we should look to government to set markets back to their rightful states - lots of information, lots of alternatives, lots of competition between those alternatives and little lock in.


> a minimum damage value for all information leaks (say $10 per person).

$10 for an email, name or other semi-common info. $100 for a hashed password $1000 for social security, credit card numbers, unhashed password


> Would you like newspapers (e.g. that very NYT) be governmentally regulated because they are "too important for society"? It's dangerously close to the late Soviet Union.

I can agree with the first part of your argument, but you're going overboard here by declaring any form of regulation to be totalitarian in nature. Considerations on the interests of companies versus the interests of society as a whole can be made (and are made) in well-functioning democracies. It's continually difficult to strike a balance, and overzealous mistakes may be made or the process might be corrupted. Still, you can't wholly dismiss governmental regulation as the modern world simply functions on it.


Well it is more the regulation of their constraints on power that is inherently totalitarian exploitable as a power consolidating move - even if the passers don't do it with bad intentions it /will/ be exploited for all it is worth later. Operating under the assumption that every bill should be evaluated as if it will be done in bad faith is wise for the same reason the first rule of networking security is never trust the client.

It would be like ammending the constitution to allow punishing the supreme court for making bad decisions - technically it holds others accountable but that is not what it will be used for.


Not any form, but this particular form, that is, regulating the forms and contents of communication, is what moves a society closer to totalitarianism. The more regulated newspapers are, the harder it is to publish a fringe opinion, the less free a society is.

If we replace newspapers with other media, especially more peer-to-peer media like Facebook or Twitter, the effect only gets more pronounced. Look at Turkey or Russia for examples.


> any form of regulation to be totalitarian in nature

If something can be done, it will eventually be done.


> Would you like newspapers (e.g. that very NYT) be governmentally regulated...

Specious argument. Internet providers are not content providers. Regulating content is not what's proposed. Those who provide access to content most certainly SHOULD be regulated. They're a common carrier, and no one with a profit motive has any business constraining access to content provided by others. That attitude befits each castle independently taxing passer-by river traffic.

If we're going to allow ISPs to tax us arbitrarily, we'd damned well better have more of them to choose from than the monopoly most of us 'enjoy' now.


A lot more regulation could be done without actually resorting to censoring media.


I agree that they are getting too powerful but the main issue is that the FTC keeps allowing all these mega mergers and consolidations.

I also find it ironic that this is from the NYTimes when one could argue that 60 years ago that they were the too powerful one. The easiest source of information is always going to have an unfair advantage and drive the narrative. The only thing that has changed is that this is cheaper to do and scale now then in the old days. You can't stop people from being lazy.


> I also find it ironic that this is from the NYTimes when one could argue that 60 years ago that they were the too powerful one.

That's really a stretch. In 1968 there's no question the NYT was among the top 3-4 national newspapers, but it's not even a remotely close comparison.

First of all you're still talking about a rather bulky collection of papers that had to be distributed daily in order to have any persuasive ability. The NYT never had daily sway over the residents of Colorado Springs or Salt Lake City, and as a practical matter pretty much every American had never picked up an issue.

Their reach internationally was minimal at best, and even within NYC they had half a dozen very serious competitors. And of course the three major broadcast networks (both radio and TV) were of equal or higher reach as well.

Comparing their reach 60 years ago to Facebook today is actually incredibly instructive, but not at all in the way you're implying.


>but the main issue is that the FTC keeps allowing all these mega mergers and consolidations.

Such a short-sighted effort to identify a singular bad apple seems disingenuous. Hardly anyone on this site is blind to the FTC’s corrupt motivations for cooperating with the tech corporations. Is this an effort to soothing some personal guilt? I can’t make sense of it.

>The only thing that has changed is that this is cheaper to so and scale now then in the old days.

Not true or helpful. Why even try to make such a comparison? What about the FTC allowing mergers? You said it yourself! And nobody here will have trouble finding examples of businesses not participating in these dystopian and authoritarian practices. Very odd minimalization of these issues as laziness. I can’t imagine who you think you’re fooling.


That has been true ever since "I supply the pictures, you supply the war"; "if it leads it bleeds" and lets not forget the main.

The only reason people are talking about it now is that newspapers are no longer in a position to dictatate terms and that, gasp, ugly discusting nerds have finally gotten a say.

Of course there are problems with the current crop of corporations in charge (and it is going to get worse, since you could have many large newspapers in the US, but there is only going to be one dominating social media platform, although which one it is can change and most certainly will), but that doesn't mean the solution is to hand power back to NYT.


[flagged]


Like we've asked already, please post civilly and substantively or we'll ban you.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


[flagged]


It seems you won't post substantively (and it doesn't matter what you're replying to), so we've banned the account.


While this may be true, there's no guarantee that the government can do the job better. The slow ratchet of regulation is what's right for the industry at the present moment.


Certainly part of this is a cultural problem, which is part complacency and part ignorance as to what's actually going on. Laws aren't going to necessarily change that, but they can step in as a last resort when culture doesn't end up addressing fundamental problems of social health or rights issues.

The social media companies effectively propagandize ordinary communication for whatever's most profitable, and the effects can be individually subtle, with large overall effect. While this tends to be accepted at the for-profit media creation level, it seems quite inappropriate and socially unhealthy to apply these to personal communication on social media, because the cultural buy-in to these sorts of things means individuals put themselves into monopolized systems.

Social media is very new in the grand scheme of things, and there are things to figure out. Certainly education on these topics and their effects is important, and possibly more declarations of rights (as opposed to specifically prescriptive regulations) of people's personal communications might be in order.


It's not like they are pointing guns at people, are they?


Facebook and Google alone could effectively change "facts" to suit their political agendas. They alone could easily heavily influence the democratic process all over the world. That is far more dangerous than some guys with guns.


[flagged]


> the hundred million people butchered in the 20th century by governments with guns is better than

Would you please stop posting like this to HN? Ideological flamewar tropes are not welcome here.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

s2g 5 months ago [flagged]

Yes, far more dangerous.

Control information and you control the populace. You don't need to use guns because the people don't know whats going on, you can prevent people from organizing, you can use misinformation and propaganda to control people. Control of information and control of speech is a massive amount of power. I'd rather google had access to a few nukes, honestly.


Yes, but they are only controlling core forms of communication that they themselves built.


The ISPs and mobile carriers are too powerful. At least Google/Facebook have to innovate, or buy companies like Instagram or Whatsapp that innovate. ISPs get their billions in revenue from monopoly. All they have to do is buy off politicans and put people like Ajit Pai in power. Now that they've started to acquire tech companies like Yahoo, no one can stop them from giving preferential treatment to their content and streaming services eventually threatening the ability for tech startups to compete through innovation.


I'm still baffled by the focus on FANG as too powerful and inescapable, especially from generally left/liberal writers. They're not always friendly or easy to avoid, certainly, but they're far more escapable and far less legislatively malicious than Comcast, AT&T, and their ilk.

Obviously lots of people are mad at those companies too, but it's frustrating to see "hit Google with antitrust suits!" getting high-profile NYT billing while "hit Comcast with antitrust suits!" doesn't.


> I'm still baffled by the focus on FANG as too powerful and inescapable, especially from generally left/liberal writers. They're not always friendly or easy to avoid, certainly, but they're far more escapable and far less legislatively malicious than Comcast, AT&T, and their ilk.

Facebook and Google have are far more powerful and inescapable for writers than for the general public, as those companies are the primary way the public discovers and consumes news media online. A regular person can easily delete their Facebook profile and switch to Duckduckgo, but the same would be suicide for a newspaper: they have to go where the eyeballs are.


> Facebook and Google have are far more powerful and inescapable for writers than for the general public

This is insightful. Sometimes I forget that journalists occasionally have points-of-view that are not quite aligned with the public - I think they forget that too. I suspect that's also why middle-aged, balding men (frequently English professors) who are somehow irresistible to (much) younger women are over-represented in novels as heroes.


>writers

I think there's your problem. The FANG companies have such a higher profile than ISPs, and universal exposure among readers (vs. anyone who might live outside the US, or where Comcast doesn't have a monopoly), so articles on them will attract more attention.

See $argument-about-the-decline-of-journalism and so on.


I'm still baffled by the focus on FANG as too powerful and inescapable

I can stand up an encrypted session to prevent ISPs from having incidental access to my data. I get the exact same service (a dumb bit pipe). Moving from one ISP to another is a lightweight operation that doesn't limit what I can do beyond throughput and latency. I've already switched between 3 different isps today without even noticing, and it will be 5 by the time I go to bed.

The Facebook/Apple/Googles of the world are all designed around vendor lock-in, designing tools such that they always get incidental access to my data, then exploiting that access to the hilt.

Oh, and ISPs get beat up plenty too.


Google and Facebook are allowed to maintain data about me and my life, sell that data to others, and I have no recourse. My broadband and mobile providers see a much slimmer cross section of my life, and are far less capable as data aggregation and warehousing systems comparatively speaking.

Google and Facebook (and Amazon, to a lesser extent) are for-profit surveillance systems at their core. How could you not demand oversight and regulation of such systems in a democracy?


"are allowed to maintain data about me and my life, sell that data to others, and I have no recourse"

All of that applies unchanged to Verizon, Comcast, et al, even if they aren't currently doing so.

"My broadband and mobile providers see a much slimmer cross section of my life"

I'm not sure this is true in general? I agree that Google and Facebook have a fair bit of data about me. They have vastly more data about average users who use Facebook sign-in, don't block tracking, leave location services on, etc. But broadband and mobile providers see every site most users visit (even if your DNS isn't your ISP), along with metadata about those interactions. And mobile providers track location effectively non-stop, even if location services are off, plus extensive metadata on calls and texts.

And that's before we get into the monopoly issues; Verizon now owns the scraps of data-hog Yahoo so it's operating in both domains. I'm not sure why I would assume Oath is any less scary as an aggregator and warehouse than Google. (Less secure, undoubtedly, but that's not a mark in its favor. "Verizon sucks at technology" does not make me feel better.)

"How could you not demand oversight and regulation of such systems in a democracy?"

Again, my argument isn't "Facebook and Google are beyond reproach", it's "why are we more worried about FANG than their analogues who also have monopoly control over users and in-depth access to people's locations and call records?"

The other issue with regulation, of course, is that a key concern for all of these companies is that they hand data to the government, often without so much as a warrant. (And yet again, mobile providers are noticeably worse about this than any other player - except Yahoo, which is now tied to a mobile provider.) That doesn't make regulation a bad idea, but it certainly cripples my faith in it as a full solution.


Why aren't you complaining about Equifax instead then? Now there's a company who absolutely deserves scorn.


That's just a red herring you're dangling in front of our noses to distract us.

There's no law of the universe saying one has to address bad actors in a specific order or sequentially.

Furthermore, Equifax is a problem that the US needs to solve by themselves. Google & Facebook are a global problem.


Equifax (and Facebook) actually had an exfiltrated event. And they didn't get punished.

Don't lump Google in there.


But ISPs don't pick war with those who buy ink by the barrels. So you won't see a flood of articles across the political spectrum about how bad ISPs are.


ISPs are USA’s problem. FANG is a global problem.


If by global, you exclude China with 1/6 of the world population, then sure. While you're at it, you should exclude Japan, SE Asia, and Russia also.


I'm probably in the minority, but the negatives don't seem that bad when compared to the benefits we get from the tech companies: free email, free or cheap access to information on almost anything you could be interested in, junk entertainment that people seem to enjoy. The negatives are less tangible: giving up your personal data (this is complicated by the fact that the data didn't exist until you used their services), targeted advertising, I'm not sure what else there is.

It's easy to criticize things, but it's harder to come up with an alternative system that would provide many of the same benefits. I'm not defending the current legal and regulatory system that large corporations operate in. I think they receive large amounts of corporate welfare from the government that are harmful overall, but that's an economy wide problem, not one confined to the tech industry. It also has more straightforward solutions: begin eliminating some of the subsidies these businesses receive.


I agree, except for one potentially huge negative: they might be eroding our ability to have functional democracies.

The tech giants' business models strongly incentivize maximizing the time a user spends within their app. To do that, their algorithms try to find the most engaging content to show you.

The most engaging political content is often hyper-partisan, outrage-driven, and unconcerned with truth. These algorithms encourage bad faith participation by all players: media outlets, individuals, and politicians. Political ideas are often shared not out of deep seated belief, but in hopes of distribution.

Democracy seems predicated on the idea that most participants will engage in good faith. Whether we like it or not, our civic discourse has moved over to platforms that seem to incentivize bad faith participation. I think that's cause for alarm.


Look up the history of "political machines", "yellow journalism", "fascism". Democracy has always been corrupted because people are inherently not very good.


Sure, but smart phones & social networks see far more user adoption and time spent than any newspaper during the era of yellow journalism. The scale is just incomparable, and potential consequences far greater.


So what would you replace it with?


They never claimed democracy wasn't the best we have right now.


You mean what to replace the democracy with, or the corruption?


It's interesting that you've done the calculus on these same issues, and come up with a completely different answer than me. I weighed free email etc. against giving up personal data etc. and I came down decidedly on the side that it's not worth it. And because there aren't alternatives, I just don't don't do some things anymore, wherever I can. That means no facebook. No smartphone. No twitter. Not IG. No googling as much as I can. Sometimes I just have to be fine with not knowing things that I could easily look up.

Maybe it's age? How old are you? Not to be that old guy (I'm not even old) but I'm old enough to remember a time when I didn't have the internet, and I didn't have a smart phone, and I didn't even have a computer. And life was... well actually okay. It was fine. I got by day to day and I lived. Today, anyone under 25, all they know is life with the Internet and smartphones. I can't even begin to comprehend that worldview.


Mid 20s. The only social media I have is IG but I only follow people I know in real life. I don't find FB worthwhile because it made me dislike many people I know after seeing how they express some of their political opinions (on both the left and right). The other ones just seem like wastes of time.

I still use Google regularly and I have a smartphone, but I would give up a smartphone if there were a decent phone with email and google maps as built in applications.

I agree that giving up personal data can be concerning for many people, but at the same time, people don't want to pay for the services, so it's a catch-22.


I find this view as outdated as I find an ultra religious and conservative person's views towards modern accomplishments in gender equality.

Are there some downsides to being connected in the modern digital age? Of course! But on a personal level they are miniscule and the gains outweigh the losses by a huge margin.


Somehow we did get by. And we weren’t living in ignorance either. We were well informed and engaged.


> free email, free or cheap access to information on almost anything you could be interested in, junk entertainment that people seem to enjoy.

> giving up your personal data

You just described precisely why it's not free.


>The negatives are less tangible: giving up your personal data (this is complicated by the fact that the data didn't exist until you used their services), targeted advertising, I'm not sure what else there is.

You forgot about the elephant in the room: the imminent danger of cyberwarfare.

The reason the Holocaust was so efficient at mass murder was because of "giving up your personal data".

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_and_the_Holocaust

These tech companies have aggregated the most detailed demographical and psychological profiles in history on billions of people.

Let's not pretend they're impervious to hackers.

The "weapons of mass destruction" of the future will be algorithms loaded with the dual-use munitions we call "big data".


Holocaust only needed personal data because of the weird racism. You don't need personal data if you want to just invent "communist" or "counter-revolutionary" victims to persecute or to murder everyone with a different nose shape from the group in power.


Would my life be that much worse if I paid 10 bucks a month for google search?


No but googles would


Corporations have been "too powerful" in this country since its inception. Public policy, culture, politics, style and all other aspects of daily life have all been constantly influenced or outright driven by conglomerates in media, banking, big oil, defense etc.

The only difference is that now tech, which had till recently been on the very fringe of this, is starting to upset the established order.


American corporations have only been powerhouses capable of dominating the policy aspect of public life for 95-110 years.

I know it seems pedantic, but it's annoying to watch people rewrite history. The industrial revolution weakened the power base of a strong American aristocracy, the majority of which had already been crippled after a brutal civil war. These were the ashes upon which corporate America was built.


Er, I humbly think you're the one "rewriting history" (at least to as much of a degree as you claim the parent is, frankly it seems hyperbolic in either case for a simple historical debate.) Disclaimer: What follows is the ramblings of an armchair historian who has watched way too much ken burns.

The transcontinental railway was chartered in 1862 and completed in 1869. During that period BOTH companies (Union Pacific and Central Pacific) significantly influenced public policy in order to extract the most money from the deal. (everything from disingenuous surveying and geology to lobbying). That was almost 150 years ago, and ~80 years after the establishment of the bill of rights, the vast majority of american history.

I'd say America has our history inexorably linked with abuses by powerful corporations. From the treatment of the chinese by the railroads, to the steel/coal worker strikes (pinkertons/ludlow massacre), to the robber barons, and the impact left by Carnegie and Rockefeller and their ilk.

While I'd agree that there was certainly an upper class (aristocracy) in America around and after the founding, I think there are fair complaints in calling it as such when compared to "Traditional" aristocracies of the time (in England), with a much more significant wealth delta and a history of generational wealth/power/landholdings outside of business.

Finally, the civil war really only devastated the south economically, the north was pretty much untouched and served as the industrial power base eventually leading to the examples I cite above. So while the southern planting aristocracy may have been "hard reset" I've heard nothing but that the north prospered afterwards in their relative position of newfound power and intactness. (I've similarly never heard the connection drawn to WW1 where the british aristocracy was gutted due to the casualty levels of this war coupled with their tradition of military service)

Actually, I'm pretty sure that a large part of the civil war/southern resistance on the anti slavery front was motivated by the largest planters, who could be considered the "business powerhouses" of that space and time.

So while this turned into a bit of a wall of text, I'd tie it up with a polite disagreement. America and corporate power have almost always gone hand in hand, for better and (very often) for worse.


The industrial revolution began before the civil war; export-driven growth began taking off in the 1840s. More broadly, industrialization weakened an artisan middle class - wages fell during early industrialization. This power was always concentrated in the hands of a bourgeois owning class; the limited liability corporation was one of the key early innovations of American government in promoting this economic form.

The modern corporate form did not develop until later - a managerial class emerged starting around World War II (see: James Burnham) and is, I think, a big explanation for why the previous Gilded Age saw massive labor organizing that eventually drove American policy change, but this era has not - the ruling class bought their own organizers this time.


America didn't really have an aristocracy. It had something that if left unchecked would probably become an aristocracy, but it didn't exist in that form yet.


Depends on your definition of aristocracy. Remember, you used to have land to be able to vote.


You're right, that did limit enfranchisement. That was gone well before the Civil War, though. That would be an unusual definition of aristocracy, but I get it. By the same token, we currently limit the vote to people over 18 that are citizens. Are we currently aristocrats?


Upset or supplant?


I'm OK with giant tech companies. America isn't the only place in the world and doesn't hold a monopoly on tech. If it's not American tech giants, it'll be Chinese or some other countries tech giants.


But these aren't American companies any more. They were founded in America, and there are lots of jobs created by them in America, and there's something to be said for both those things. But I think there's a larger issue here which is that sovereignty is being eroded by the consolidation of wealth and power. Companies move to Ireland to avoid taxes, set up warehousing shell companies in Nevada to avoid taxes, set up legal holding companies in Delaware so they can do whatever they want, file patents in Jamaica to claim precedence on things that others may have thought of, and I'm sure tons of other things that I'm not aware of.


> file patents in Jamaica to claim precedence on things that others may have thought of

Can you explain how this works? Why would anyone care about Jamaican patents if they apparently don't play properly?


> "The tech giants are exploiting a US trademark-law provision that lets them effectively claim a trademark in secret."

Jamaica and some other countries don't maintain searchable databases, allowing companies to register trademarks abroad in secret and then point to those registrations when claiming the mark in the US.

Source: https://qz.com/808846/why-jamaica-knows-about-apples-new-pro...


Patents != trademarks


The actual point still stands though (though it is in response to something that doesn't even stand on it's own, but hey). Replace "patents" with "trademarks", which is not necessary for the structural integrity of the argument either way -- and follow the HN guidelines about the strongest interpretation of a comment.



But for much of the western world it's these American household names which have direct influence on people's livelihoods more than any other on a social/cultural level. When companies like Apple, Facebook and Google reach the 'giant' status that they have, the average person will have a choice made for them, becuase of what the status quo is, despite there being alternatives out there. The larger they get, the less choice the world has, meaning less indpendence.


> America ... doesn't hold a monopoly on tech

Certainly seems that way.


Perhaps it only seems that way for household names like apple, Facebook and google.

There are a lot of less well known technology giants elsewhere in the world. E.g. ARM from the UK (now owned by Japanese giant SoftBank) has pretty much total domination on the smartphone CPU market (licensing anyway - lots of manufacturing is done by e.g. Samsung of Korea)

My mum will have heard of Facebook and Google, but I guarantee that she and probably most other people's mother's have never ever heard of ARM.

Just one example - countless others.


What's another example? This one strikes me as unique because ARM just sells their IP.

Sure, our mothers probably haven't heard of ARM but that's more like saying they haven't heard of x86. Our mothers have almost definitely heard of Samsung and Apple, both of whom manufacture a large number of ARM chips.

There's even a decent chance they've heard of a company like Qualcomm that's not as well known as Apple or Samsung.


Foxconn, SAP ? These are good examples aren't they.

Edit: Not nvidia. Realised OP was asking for None-US companies


Different parts of the industry have very different potential for political power.

If you wanted to influence a US presidential election, a 100% monopoly on the printing press would be much more useful than a 100% monopoly on zipper manufacturing.

The former is presumably what newspaper opinion writers are worried about.


Proprietary anyway, free software seems much more international.


The problems with tech companies are not that they are big, but people follow them blindly.

These companies only work for making money and are not around to help people.

This other day a journalist asked a big computer game producing company why they are selling in-game stuff to kids (like Overwatch). They refused to answer. They are not around to help people.

A hospital in Tanzania was in dire need for an upgrade of there IT-system connecting a X-ray machine to doctors for image analysis. They had no budget. 2 helpful guys from Europe searched the Webb for free software. On there free time they built a system which they installed themselves. The big companies are not around to help people.


In 2016, Google donated $167 million in cash and $1 billion in their own products to charitable causes.

Microsoft - $135 million in cash, $922 million in product

Cisco - $41 million in cash, $245 million in product

AT&T - $112 million in cash, $7 million in product

Verizon - $56 million in cash, $32 million in product

While these companies are around primarily to make a profit, I'm sure that their $460 million dollars in cash donations sure helped a lot of people. Not to mention all the jobs they create (also helping people), the wealth they generate for their shareholders (also helping people), and the individual charitable donations of those shareholders.

http://www.businessinsider.com/most-generous-companies-in-am...


A viewpoint: charity is power. These companies have control over where this money goes, and are likely to spend more on things that make them look good, or provide long term benefit to the company over things that don't.

Another approach might be to take the charity money away from the companies, and have those funds distributed to worthy causes by a democratically appointed body instead: giving the money to causes that benefit everyone, not just the company's PR department. You could call this system 'taxation'.

A case study: Flint water. Nobody's done anything about it for years. Now there's a PR opportunity so Elon's going to fix it. The people of Flint will get drinkable water (hopefully) and Elon will get another PR lift. This problem could have been fixed years ago (and perhaps should never even have happened), but the people who decide when these big social problems get fixed is no longer the people (almost all of whom think it's an unacceptable travesty, especially in a rich, developed nation), but the billionaire class, who require something back in return.


> A viewpoint: charity is power. These companies have control over where this money goes, and are likely to spend more on things that make them look good, or provide long term benefit to the company over things that don't.

They are more likely to spend it on things that make them look good, which has absolutely nothing to do with my point that these companies are helping people, even if their primary goal is not to help people.

> Another approach might be to take the charity money away from the companies, and have those funds distributed to worthy causes by a democratically appointed body instead: giving the money to causes that benefit everyone, not just the company's PR department. You could call this system 'taxation'.

All of these companies are taxed, according to the rules set by the democratically appointed body you mention. I don't understand why you included this part of your comment.

> This problem could have been fixed years ago (and perhaps should never even have happened), but the people who decide when these big social problems get fixed is no longer the people (almost all of whom think it's an unacceptable travesty, especially in a rich, developed nation), but the billionaire class, who require something back in return.

Just so I have this straight - you're saying the reason that the people of Flint haven't had their water problems fixed yet is because the billionaire class only cares about getting something in return from such an action?

I'd like you to tell me what exactly you think should have been done in Flint and how the billionaire class subverted the will of the American people by not doing it.


Yes, I agree they are helping people. But who are they helping? They don't seem to be helping the little people like that Tanzanian hospital the way the developers did who found a free software solution. It seems we weaponize situations of desperate need in order to accomplish our own means. If these companies truly cared for the people they are helping, they wouldn't even bother with the PR side of it at all. Their help certainly makes a huge difference, I agree, but intention is everything, and if they intend to aid their own purposes, that is what will see the most benefit from their efforts.


> intention is everything

I'm sure the people that received Google's millions of dollars would disagree with that statement.

> If these companies truly cared for the people they are helping, they wouldn't even bother with the PR side of it at all.

Why? Does getting good PR from helping someone diminish the help that said person receives?

> if they intend to aid their own purposes, that is what will see the most benefit from their efforts.

I have not once disagreed with this statement - companies primary goal is to make a profit. However, they also provide a tremendous amount of help to those who need it and I don't think people should dismiss that so easily.

> They don't seem to be helping the little people like that Tanzanian hospital the way the developers did who found a free software solution.

It's easier for us to grasp a situation in which a few developers help out a few people who need it. It's not easy for us to parse "$150 million in charitable donations" in the same way, but I assure you there are thousands of "helping the little guy" stories you can craft out of $150 million.


"Just so I have this straight - you're saying the reason that the people of Flint haven't had their water problems fixed yet is because the billionaire class only cares about getting something in return from such an action?"

Musk could have easily acted back when it happened. He didn't.


Pedantic point: Elon's not going to fix Flint's water. He's going to offer to install filters on people's homes.


That's a lot like saying FB and GOOG are charitable because they give their products away for "free". How much money/data are those product donations extracting from the people they donated to?


It's not like saying that. This is literally Google donating money to charity. That's the definition of being charitable.

Even so, many would agree that Facebook and Google are charitable for giving their products away for free even if they extract value from them in other ways.


>This is literally Google donating money to charity.

I specifically said "product" donations.

>Even so, many would agree that Facebook and Google are charitable for giving their products away for free

And they would be ignorant of the value of their information, attention spans, and technology in general. Many such people would also agree that "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about"


Why are companies allowed to give money to charities? Aren't they supposed to only try to make profit?


That's what a company does. That is the entire purpose of a company. They don't owe any social good, they are a profit seeking entity.

If you don't agree with a given company, stop giving them profit. Don't like Facebook? Stop using it. Don't care for Microsoft? Stop buying Windows and Office.

The only other option for controlling companies is government control - that has never worked out well longterm.


I'm not sure those are the only two options. Pure capitalism and central control are more like two extremes on a continuum. There is a lot of work being done at the moment to get companies to accept a certain degree of social responsibility for the externalities relating to their activities - things like environmental impact, for instance. So there is an intermediate way forward.


I barely trust Facebook/Microsoft/et al. at an arms length. The last thing I want is them aggressively making choices about what kind of content is ok or not - it seems easy to censor Nazi's but what about brexitors or pro-firearms talk?

Add in a government compulsion to crack down on "bad speech" and we've circumvented free speech. Facebook has a right to not allow some content, but when Governments start setting standards across companies, what then?

In the UK, firearms talk is basically verboten. In the US, that's protected speech. Whose rules does Facebook follow? Or do we have a separate UK facebook?


> They don't owe any social good

Where is this written?


Does the private citizen owe social good?

Unless you have a clear argument that all people have a prima facie duty to always do social good (mandatory volunteering?) then it seems very difficult to claim there's a special duty when multiple people group together. Does that duty affect the bake shop up the road? The bookshop that employs 20 people?


I believe everybody part of a society has a responsibility minimise or prevent the harm they do, and this idea that corporations should not have any form of social conscience is actually a fairly recent one.

The idea that they are legally obliged only to maximise shareholder value is also a myth I'm pretty sure.

We can blame hacks like Friedman for that. His warped ideology doesn't jive with reality.


> The idea that they are legally obliged only to maximise shareholder value is also a myth I'm pretty sure.

The CEO and other officers of a company have a stated, legal requirement to act in the companies best interest in regards to the shareholders. All commercial companies (let's ignore non-profits and such for a moment) are founded to generate profit for their shareholders since that is what in turn attracts shareholders.

> I believe everybody part of a society has a responsibility minimise or prevent the harm they do

That's a nice belief and it'd be great if it was true - but that's not an argument for an a priori duty to do social good. Let's just imagine for a moment that you, yourself, are legally obligated to do social good. What does that look like? Do you have a minimum amount of hours per week you're forced to do free work (eg, forced labor)? Can you get out of that by being forced to give some money to charity (eg, taxes)? What are the punishments if you don't execute your duty? Jail?

Imagine that system scaled up and applied just to everyone - each person individually. Forced labor, some kind of weird mandatory charity tax thing, and the threat of punishment if you don't comply - is that the kind of world you want to live in?

It's easy to demand other people do good. It's much harder to do good ourselves when it's our own time and money.


Big companies are on the stock market with CEO’s who want to turn in a profit so market share goes higher. If they don’t do that, they get replaced.

Tech is especially dangerous since it can automate vast amounts of things with very few people if capital is there.

It just makes me really sad how non-existent Seattle startup industry is compared to the valley. Almost everyone here works at the Big Cos Microsoft and Amazon.


> These companies only work for making money and are not around to help people.

This has nothing to do with tech companies.


They are powerful for sure, but I wouldn't say they are too powerful. When the media or politicians can brow-beat tech giants into submitting to their demands, you really can't say tech giants are too powerful. I'd say "too big to [f|j]ail" banks or "too big to [f|j]ail" oil companies are too powerful right now.

But tech giants have the potential of becoming too powerful as they "collude/merge" with media and government. It's worrisome that giant techs are now moving into news media and working so much government.


As someone old enough to remember when IBM seemed too huge to ever lose in the market, along came Microsoft. Then when Microsoft felt like it was unstoppable, along came Google and Amazon. Now those companies are reaching the same terminal velocity and a new breed of companies will rise up and dethrone them.


AT&T still dominates telephone service. Most phone companies are renamed Baby Bells.

Facebook has the analytics information and wealth to buy any competitor.

IBM gave itself away to Microsoft when an exec handed Bill Gates a sweetheart deal for DOS.

Microsoft is still the dominant force in its original industry (desktop computing) which is still significant.

The Internet disrupted companies that weren't ready for it. Do you think something new is coming alomg to replace the Internet?

Even so, when one giant replaces another, so what? What problem does that solve? "When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers."


> The Internet disrupted companies that weren't ready for it. Do you think something new is coming alomg to replace the Internet?

Yes, this is the way of technology and it's happening faster and faster. One of the biggest reasons Microsoft ended up on its back foot in the 2000's was because it disregarded the threat of Linux, and woke up too late to the mobile revolution. In all these cases there's hubris mixed with inertia and when the landscape shifts these giants aren't paying attention.


Both IBM and Microsoft got hit with anittrust lawsuits, which curbed their monopolistic behavior.


The problem isn’t that they’ve grown too powerful, it’s that they either haven’t recognized their own power or have willfully rejected the responsibility attached to it.


> or have willfully rejected the responsibility attached to it.

There is no responsibility attached to it, at least not legal responsibility. Even that isn't enough for anyone that gets to powerful and beyond enforcement.

The truly sad thing is that you expect them to act responsibly. Companies will (and have) work children to death if it helps maximize output, if you expect them to act benevolently then prepare for disappointment.


"There is no responsibility attached to it"

That's not true at all. There is always responsibility attached to power.

"The truly sad thing is that you expect them to act responsibly"

Why? Why is it sad that a person would expect other people to act responsibly? Why is it considered fine to have such a low opinion of everyone?

"Companies will (and have) work children to death if it helps maximize output"

And society put pressure on them to change that. And in much of the world, that doesn't happen anymore.


This is one of the central questions of our age.

In an ideal capitalist free market companies are almost necessarily amoral (Friedmann doctrine ), they can only make choices based on profit. In real life you have barriers to entry and PR concerns that let companies at least pretend to waste some profit-making opportunities on doing good.

I don't know if the right answer is consumer unions, or benevolent government regulation, or giving up and making do with what we have, but this discuss I see on this issue seems so polarised (not unique) that progress will be hard to come by.


It seems obvious that government regulation is the answer to me. That's how we got rid of child labor, created a minimum wage, and enshrined the 40 hour work week as standard in the US.

That said, decades of social pressure led up to those laws being passed. It's not enough to sit idly by and let Congress solve these problems on their own.


> This is one of the central questions of our age.

I think the question is what to do about it, not whether it's happening. We have reams of evidence that it's happening, and "doing good" for PR reasons is just more of the same - it's more important to look good than to be good, and looking good without being good is more profitable and thus more desirable.

Unfortunately, because so much of our media runs in the same system, it can be difficult to have a clear conversation on the topic.


You're right, the central question we are facing is how to structure our society, what values, incentives we should use as its foundation.

The current (capitalist) system uses self interest and profit as an incentive, and we see where that got us. We can mitigate some issues with tweaks like regulation, but it's also valuable to ask more fundamental questions. Is there a different incentive other than profit we can use? What are the effects on society of the incentives we use? What values do we want to promote? How can we do that?

The difficulty of having this complex and nuanced discussion shouldn't discourage us from having it. We must find our way together.


> This is one of the central questions of our age

Is it though? We've got a couple of hundred years of case history now and been proven time and time again they kind of depravity companies will do.

It seems we finally kind of got the balance right post world war 2 and it's all been backwards since.

I can usually see the other sides point of view but it's starting to feel like the other side are anti-vaxers where I understand their fears (the same corporatism fear I'm expressing here) but can't grasp how they reached their conclusion.


Both of which mean they have grown too powerful.


Basically this post.

The whole debacle around Cambridge Analytica and political ads on Facebook is basically the consumers saying; "Congratulations Facebook, you conquered news publishers by piggy backing my cousin's puppy pictures! Did you know I expect responsibility from publisher's? As in, when I see slanderous information slung around at near the speed of light, someone better take responsibility for it."


Fine, Facebook would say, we don't care.


Their response was not ”we don’t care” to the Cambridge Analytica and political ads scandal because when they didn’t respond at all at first the public became angry and politicians threatened with regulation. That’s why Zuckerberg eventually did appear before Congress and the EU parliament.

To do otherwise is to guarantee regulation, and then Facebook would really care.


Am I surprised that the New York times doesn't ask "Have the banking giants grown too powerful?" No I am not. I am also not sure why the NYT feels compelled to bash the Bay Area from time to time but whatever.

Do I think there should be more privacy reform? Yes. Do I think there should be more banking reform? Yes. Do I think for a minute that the current state of the world will persist for a decade? Not really.


> "Have the banking giants grown too powerful?"

The New York Times never asks this question because it doesn't make for news and the answer has basically been the same since the emergence of banking giants. Asking if banking is too powerful will always yield an affirmative, and the discerning NYTimes reader will react with a justified, "No shit Sherlock".

> I am also not sure why the NYT feels compelled to bash the Bay Area

The issue is cultural. Folks from the Bay Area tend to couch their money-making schemes with nonsense about making the world a better place. Finance workers in NYC have no need to sugarcoat what they do and are unabashedly trying to make ludicrous amounts of money. In New York, calling people out on their bullshit is deeply culturally ingrained, and the Bay Area is clearly full of it. :. The NY Times gives its primary demographic what it wants.


Fair enough.


I don't know if it's necessarily a NY vs. SF thing. I see it as the NYT trying to push a conversation.

Everyone knows that the financial sector is too powerful, and attempts have been made to take action on it (i.e. regulation, albeit relatively unsuccessful). I think this is the first time we're really seeing a public conversation about the power of software fueled by advertising and its implications on privacy and speech - discussion about regulation and policies is coming around for the first time, making it pretty important news to cover.


The tech giants have grown too profitable, at the expense of stuff they should be doing like paying taxes, or hiring enough people to oversee click fraud, or hire enough people to oversee counterfeit fraud, or hire enough people to oversee how companies use highly personal data. They hire just enough people to dodge taxes and somehow not be complicit in anything they directly profit from.


This article is a bit meandering. Most of these are not really scale-specific issues, or are but in a roundabout way.

Here's (imo) the most obvious reasons.

Political Power- We used to complain about Rupert Murdoch's power. Media and journalism are a leg of democracy, so having a corporate oligopoly controlling it was worrying. Zuck's influence is way bigger. There have already been a handful of revolutions that started on FB, a dozen attempts at revolutions, full scale coups and thousands of elections where fb played a bigger role than any past media company. They didn't even notice this until it was Trump and/or stuff FB-ers cared about personally.

(1) This is too much power. (2) FB are pretending this has nothing to do with them. They don't care about journalistic integrity, or feel it applies to them. They let anyone with a credit card sign up and run political ads. extremely irresponsible, at best.

Monopoly - Thiel put it best, startups are about monopoly-or-bust. Uber wants to be the only ride app. YouTube the only free video site. FB the only networking app.

The pattern is often: Innovate. Win. Then milk it with ads and spying and/or stop innovating. YouTube for example, it's nowhere near as good as it could be, but why bother.

Data - data gets different qualities as it grows. A lot of the creepiness of targeted ads have more to do with how many people's data they have, not how much data they have about you. It locks in monopolies. It's also the newest category of "IP," which is (imo, but not gonna support it here) a current and future driver of wealth disparity.

We're now (definitely in Europe) in a period where the public/legislators are very keen on regulating. This will likely lock these monopolies further into place. 4 out of 5 times, regulation is incumbent friendly.


The nytimes publishes an article like this every few months. It's not like they're impartial in this area -- tech took news's audience. Don't give this attention it doesn't deserve.


Collectively all large corps in America have too much power, so i’ll assume we mean “more power than the other corporations”

I’m that case I’ll believe that they’re “too powerful” when a tech company mismanages itself to bankruptcy and gets a bail out from tax payer funds. Or when other companies are forced by the government to use (and pay more for) software and tech from a specific company or group of companies (maybe software from “defense” contractors counts?).

Until then i’ll continue to believe that banks, coal, and oil companies have too much power.


It is a particularly dangerous moment for American Tech giants.

In the US, liberals / Democrats hate them because: Tech is the biggest reason behind the decline of existing publishing business model and people in those industries lean liberal, Tech's contribution to rising inequality (due to automation etc), very apparent gentrification by Tech workers in places like SF / NYC.

Conservatives / Republicans hate Tech because of its perceived liberal bias - see Facebook controversy in 2016 about suppression of Conservative topics, or Eric Schmidt campaigning for Hillary, or overwhelming majority of left-leaning people in these companies.

Apart from US, other countries (eg. EU) hates Tech because they are foreign companies who are blind to local cultural sensitivities (eg. privacy, right to be forgotten, free speech to a near-absolute degree), and also the reasons why US left hates Tech (see above).

Countries like China hate US Tech co's maybe because geopolitical reasons and CCP wants to nurture local Tech giants instead of rolling out a red carpet to American Tech.

American Tech giants should really be nervous.


They certainly have from the perspective of a website creator or business owner. If you're running a business (or hell, any service in general), then you have to either play by Google and Facebook's rules or risk being rendered totally irrelevant and inaccessible to large portions of the population.

If your company's website is banned from Google, that can effectively be game over for the company, especially if you can't get reconsidered. Same if they move into your industry in many cases.


OP should include the full NYT title that answers it's own question


Have the news media giants grown too powerful?


Oh yeah, sure. Most of them are owned by the same people.


Unless you work for one, or have founded a company purpose-built for acquisition, I don’t see how the answer can be ‘No’.

For entrepreneurs, the monopolistic stranglehold these companies have, make them impossible to beat with a better product. The best possible outcome is acquisition. You may join, but never beat them.

For Free Software hackers, the giants turning away from open standards, and towards DRM and abuse of the CFAA, is chilling.

For a free society, surveillance capitalism needs to die.

If you have ambitions in life beyond RSUs and a regular massage, yes they are too powerful.


> For entrepreneurs, the monopolistic stranglehold these companies have, make them impossible to beat with a better product. The best possible outcome is acquisition. You may join, but never beat them.

Isn't this exactly what everyone said about IBM until Microsoft came along, and then what everyone said about Microsoft until Google/Apple/Facebook/Amazon came along?

Why is this time different?


Microsoft only stopped being a destructive force of nature after the Department of Justice gave them a kick to the face.


As an entrepreneur, I feel that its not always the problem that they can't be beat at the product game- but that the product doesn't really matter.

Often people don't look at the product, but the marketing. E.G. It's not a problem that SquareSpaces has an awesome site-builder, but it is a problem that they can afford to use [Keanu Reaves](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqnhN2Rzaqc) as their mascot.


You got to get in to get out Peter Gabriel sang. I’ll take my RSUs and move fuck the out of here with my analog wife, car, hi fi, and camera. She and I’ll be happy cooking with gas reading books drinking bourbon and watching it all fade in our rear view mirror. We’ll surely be just memory by the time the US devolves into chaos, the oil runs out, and disney has acquired ATT.


> For Free Software hackers, the giants turning away from open standards, and towards DRM and abuse of the CFAA, is chilling.

Every DRM needs two sides: A company implementing it and a mass of customers willing to tolerate it.

The serious problem that I see is not the DRM itself, but the laws that prohibit people to develop and distribute cracks for the DRM.


There's always someone that's powerful. If it's not tech, it's media or finance or someone else.


Fun exception to Betteridge's law of headlines https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betteridge%27s_law_of_headline...


LOL. What's next. "Have opioids been overprescribed?"


Looks like old media is feeling threatened.


You are being downvoted but, regardless of whether the argument has merit (it does IMHO), it is a fact that traditional media companies have been negatively affected by the rise of the new tech giants, and can be scarcely objective in the matter.

Some of the biggest support to the recent copyright law rejected by the EU, came from traditional news outlets.


I'll charitably assume I'm being down-voted more because of how short and dismissive my remark was than anything else. Truth be told that's all I think the likes of the NYT deserves. Even the POTUS calls it "Failing New York Times".


I really don't understand the self destructive desire to domestically pile on our tech firms while they are being shutout of the Chinese market by the government there which apparently appreciates the importance of these firms so much as to support their local companies financially, politically, and intellectually and on the other front the EU is using every tool at its disposal to hamstring US tech firms.

Some comments here and elsewhere indicate that some pitchforks wielding folks are conflating this issue with the outcomes of recent political contests, the source of this confusion is poor-old media companies that keep feigning powerlessness while conveniently pointing the finger at business rivals.


Special interests and their existence inherently transgressing the "high school social order".

Jobs were outsourced overseas decades ago and few blamed the business owners because that is what they do and the foreigners were too far away to be a punching bag. Just pretend it is a force of nature. Not to mention the desire to be one of the "rich kids". To be one they don't need to change anything about themselves - just have more money (so they think).

Gentrification by hipsters? They are either producing a good restuarant restuarant in this dump for a change and neat or there to be laughed at as fools dressing up like their grandparents.

Automation? They are ruining everything and it is all their fault! High prices due to companies moving in? It is the fault of those damn techies! Let's ignore all of the lawyers, marketers and managers though it is all the needs' fault! Those nerds aren't there to be mocked or out of sight and mind. It is their fault!

Unlike the other "problem causers" the blamers don't want to be like them and they threaten their inherent sense of superiority.

Not to mention how people blindly go along with norms like holding the rich and powerful less responsible. A rich kid crashing his car into someone drunk made a mistake. A poor kid doing so is inherently worthless trash.


I don't believe it's self-destructive to hold our companies accountable for what they do. Many of us also agree with what the EU is doing, and wish our government would get up off it's ass and do the same thing.


The EU is targeting US firms as a protectionist measure, you can read transcripts of their politicians' grandstanding and parroting local lobbyist to get the picture, they're not shy about it.


They're targeting those firms because they're the ones running roughshod over users.


It's deliberate. Opinions are manipulated for power by countries and companies. Our minds are the biggest targets.


Yes, far too powerful. Both in society and within the tech sector.

Break 'em up!


That's a question we should have been asking a few years ago.


It's interesting google maps came out with a new pricing model as mapbox gained popularity. It became more expensive and made the market easier for mapbox. Usually google would offer a cheaper, more competitive product but this wasn't the case.


Yes. But we have to be careful here. Investors want every quarter of every company they invest in to be better than the previous quarter. They don't care about your 5 year goals or your 10 year goals. They want returns now. Companies do what they can to make that happen. If we say this is just a Tech problem, we're wrong. Tech is just where most of the money has flown because, dare I say, it's relatively easy money.


Yet more pointless anti-tech drivel. I wish HN had a downvote option for articles (though I know some use the flagging feature for that). The cycle: news domain hosts newsless anti-tech article, people here and elsewhere say "yeah!", site gets clicks, narrative steered as intended, repeat tomorrow. We get it, many here and mass media are against big tech, can we just wait for news or at least unique perspectives before upvoting?


> Please don't complain that a submission is inappropriate. If a story is spam or off-topic, flag it. ... If you flag something, please don't also comment that you did.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


To clarify my point, I don't believe it is spam, off-topic, or flaggable. I just disagree with the frequency across the spectrum. Not specific to HN so, granted, maybe I shouldn't have mentioned HN in my comment.




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