October 26, 2017

This is the tenth of ten themes in Nigel Cameron’s open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, exploring obstacles to him seeking the US presidency. Click here for whole series. 

If you were to become President you would be the most powerful elected politician in the world but you’d also be one of the richest people in the world and, because data is the 21st century equivalent of what oil was to the industrial age, you would be a tech power, too. When was the last time that such power would have been concentrated in one person? I asked a handful of historians and the best answer anyone could give was to make a case for a Chinese emperor at the time of gunpowder’s invention.

For a corporate superpower to also seek to be a political superpower would raise questions at any time but this isn’t any ol’ time. You’re leader of a huge corporation at a time when many Americans – right, left, centre and not normally bothered by politics – are concerned about the rise of big businesses. Let’s not forget that it’s less than a decade after Wall Street and a handful of “too big to fail” institutions brought the global economy to a juddering and very painful halt. Whether it’s the airline industry, banking, supermarkets  or your own area of technology, power is concentrated in very few hands. We need to know what you think about all this and we’d like to know now.

Bill Kristol, founding editor of the Weekly Standard, and Bill Galston, former adviser to Bill Clinton, have teamed up to form The New Center1, a think tank seeking to frame new issues that cut across the traditional political spectrum. And their top issue? “Challenging the Titans of Technology.”

This is what they have said:

“These companies have competed and acted in their interests, which is exactly what we expect in a free market system. But as these companies have grown, they have also become more prone to engage in the grungier anti-competitive practices that the public and political leaders decry when practised in other industries. In recent years, large technology companies have been investigated for colluding with a secret agreement not to hire one another’s best workers; fined billions of dollars for unfairly favouring certain services on their platforms over other rivals; and been accused of mishandling sensitive consumer information or of obtaining new customers under false pretences.

“Government can’t be expected to sit idly by if the size and power of certain companies begin threatening the vigorous competition and innovation upon which any healthy economy depends. The power of technology companies presents government with a challenge very different from the corporate monopolies of old. These companies don’t just dominate a commodity, as Standard Oil did before it was broken up by the Supreme Court in 1911, or physical infrastructure, as AT&T did with telephone lines before it was split into the “Baby Bells” in 1984. They own an unprecedented amount of data, the most valuable asset in the world today. And the more data they own, the more powerful they become.

“Successful market economies require new companies willing to challenge the status quo and find new answers to old problems. The New Center must clear the path.”

This is just one illustration of a new tide in political thought – as you must know.

So, Zuck, are you wanting to be President to help reverse the concentration of power or, like your board member, Peter Thiel2, do you think that “competition is for losers”?

You don’t need me to tell you that for all the admiration the nation has for the innovation and dollars flowing from the Valley, we’ve become increasingly tired of the scandals. Whether it’s sexual discrimination and harassment, or just really unattractive people in charge, the Valley’s culture is now famous not just for its creativity. Some of us have been really surprised, since it would be reasonable to assume that companies led by young people – whose parents and grandparents fought for civil rights, and the equal workplace treatment of women – would be models of inclusiveness and corporate social responsibility. Plainly that hasn’t happened. So what are you doing about it?

Sure, you aren’t Sheriff of Silicon Valley but there seems to be a vacancy. There’s barely a company without serious issues, and maybe you’re just the guy to challenge them – from the top, and (always the most uncomfortable place for both parties) from among their peers. They can’t get you fired, like the guy working for the New America Foundation in DC who got too critical of Google and found himself searching for another job because the biggest search engine did not approve3.

So maybe you should run. For Sheriff, I mean, for a start. America would begin to pay attention.

But now to some details, about you and your company. Things you should maybe look at afresh if you want to run a campaign that goes beyond Sheriff of Silicon Valley. Whether you focus chiefly on doing this as Mark, or Facebook does it as a corporation, or the pair of you do it in cahoots, there’s a golden opportunity to challenge poverty and corporate misbehaviour both in your backyard and across the planet. Not sure quite how you do the latter but that’s probably why you have hired Messrs Benenson, Mehlman and Plouffe, rather than me. I imagine you’re paying them handsomely. Make them earn it.

And as for less than best practice, there’s your “charity”, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Aside from hiring high-octane pols to help, it’s begun to hand out big sums to researchers. But, of course, it isn’t actually a charity, is it? And no one seems to know why. It’s another private company that you control. You might think of shifting it into the world of regular charities by registering it with the IRS as a 501 (c)(3) – like the Gates Foundation and the Red Cross. Then what about having your lawyers draw up a deed that would make your enormous promised gift irrevocable? Just so we all know you’re really serious. This all might seem very untrusting but another businessman made very big promises on his recent road to the White House and you’ll have to forgive us if the idea of another one won’t be greeted with universal glee.

Best regards,

Nigel

(>>> Return to introduction).

FOOTNOTES
  1.  Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post, 12 September 2017: “The New Center: Will it work?”
  2.  Wall Street Journal, 12 September, 2014. “Competition Is for Losers. If you want to create and capture lasting value, look to build a monopoly.”
  3.  Kenneth P. Vogel in the New York Times, 30 August 2017, “Google Critic Ousted from Think Tank Funded by the Tech Giant.”

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