Truly not doing evil

I spent a lot of time in the car in the past month going up and down the same stretch of freeway as we moved. One thing about driving long distances on relatively straight freeway is that it leads to a lot of thinking and process time. As I was doing all this driving there was a lot of talk about Google’s AMP project going on.

Several people wrote posts on the topic, but Ethan’s resonated with me, he says:

But as I read it, Franklin’s suggesting that decisions made by, with, and for technology are, generally, placed outside any kind of governance or regulation. And today, right now, I don’t think we need to look further than AMP to see an example of what Franklin’s talking about.

If you haven’t read anything by Ursula Franklin, I suggest you do so, because Ethan’s taken some very wise words of hers and applied them to a very real problem we’re facing in how the web moves forward right now.

At the same time there were hearings happening in Washington DC where Mark Zuckerberg testified about what Facebook actually does and its behavior over the past several years. This includes, but is not limited to, the use of the platform to sway elections in several countries and influence genocide. (I realize these are harsh words, but, well, it happened and is awful.)

The two companies mentioned, Google and Facebook, have come to dominate how we use the web. And as they’ve risen into this place of prominence little has been done to ensure that they aren’t actively harming the world in which we live. Should any one company dominate the web in this way and have this much power? And those in charge of possibly doing something about it have very little understanding of what is happening, the Facebook testimony transcripts make that obvious. And at the root of all of this is how our society functions, making money and growth is what these companies care about most.

To get back to AMP, it exists to solve a very real problem, how to make websites load faster for users, but is it solving that problem or is it helping to ensure that people use Google for search and that sites get promoted in those very same products? As Tim points out in a post on performance and AMP, you can get fast websites without AMP, but of course you don’t get the promotion in Google’s products without it.

The resulting bump in Google’s search therefore increases traffic and revenue. And I understand that all too well, we live in a society where capitalism is king and making money is, too many times, the only goal. It’s why Facebook, on the whole, often disregards what’s happening on their own platform, they’re making money.

But I can’t help but wonder what would happen if it weren’t the only goal. It feels like a pipe dream, but what if we defined our industry’s success by how well our work cared about people, ethics, about truly not doing evil? What would that look like? How would we change how we treat the web and how we use the web? Because how the web’s been used over the last several years by some of the largest and most influential companies is worrying, the impact is larger than anyone imagined.