For the giants of Silicon Valley, the fall from freedom’s children to social pariah has been something of a Shakespearean reversal of fortunes. Google, Apple and Facebook might be Lear, Othello and Macbeth in the suddenness and completeness of their fall from a grace that was bequeathed to them by the generations that found their technologies liberating, empowering and even beautiful.
These companies are nothing like the robber barons that were rebuked by the U.S. government a century ago. They are not locking out workers or running sweatshops. On the contrary: They’re hiring people. Led by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s advocacy group FWD.us, they are agitating for immigration laws to be loosened so they can hire clever Chinese, Indian and other citizens and pay them lots of money. Those lucky enough to get into their now-sprawling campuses gain access to a kind of gold-plated welfare state where choices of delicious food, health centers and dental clinics are theirs for the using.
The companies say transparency and freedom of speech are at the heart of all they do. Transparency is a Google “Core Value”; Facebook has signed up to the Global Network Initiative, dedicated to advancing freedom of expression to help “shed a spotlight on government practices that restrict expression and seek over-broad requests for user data.”
Freedom and transparency make up one of the largest battlegrounds between states and citizens today, and the fact that the Silicon Valley companies put themselves on the side of citizens has attracted high-profile recruits to their offices. In the UK, two big-time journalists renounced their trade to work for Google: John Kampfner was editor of the leftist New Statesman and head of the NGO Index on Censorship. He is now an external adviser to Google on free expression and culture. Peter Barron edited the BBC’s probing Newsnight program and, while a reporter on the program, won a 1995 award from the Royal Television Society for reports on the arms-to-Iraq scandal. He’s now head of external relations for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Google.
As unlikely as it is that the rich, clever people behind these companies will lead their employers to tragic fates, they have a very large problem on their hands. Relative to their earnings, these companies pay very little taxes. This is not, it seems so far, a crime. But it may be worse than a crime; it is a product of their philosophies.