Most marquee tech companies stepped into 2019 with a mountain of responsibilities on their shoulders.
Mired in lawsuits and with a Congress teeming with inexorable questions hot on their heels, tech giants this year came to terms with the fact that their jobs were simply not just building new, shiny slabs of glass or figuring out how to emulate human emotions in virtual assistants. They will remember 2019 as a precursor to a new era — one where they could no longer escape the broader implications of their actions and products.
No longer are these organizations perceived as the ones shaping our future. They are instead being put under the proverbial microscope and considered threats to our present due to alarmingly adverse effects on culture, environment, and politics.
So in 2019, tech companies scrambled to shake that image off through fresh commitments and bold promises. However, it has quickly become evident that they have forgotten that the issues they vowed to address and fix are deeply sewn into the very fabric of their businesses and, indeed, their very existence. As the year progressed, those promises began to fall apart.
Broken promises to go green
Last month, prominent tech leaders including Apple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and others signed a renewed commitment to the Paris Agreement. “Humanity has never faced a greater or more urgent threat than climate change — and it’s one we must face together. Apple will continue our work to leave the planet better than we found it and to make the tools that encourage others to do the same,” tweeted Cook.
Yet, the actions of the companies Cook and his counterparts manage have largely contradicted their vows to save the Earth.
That irony was on full display a few weeks ago when Apple, Google, Amazon, and other manufacturers actively promoted Black Friday and Cyber Monday, raking up billions in sales. These shopping frenzies are known to be detrimental to the environment. With new items making their way into people’s homes, millions of discarded electronics end up in landfills, releasing toxic chemicals into the soil. On top of that, as e-commerce platforms like Amazon rush to deliver hundreds of thousands of new orders in a matter of hours, more diesel trucks and airplanes leave packaging hubs, causing air pollution to spike. Producing these products itself is a carbon-intensive process. While Amazon has ordered 100,000 electric delivery vans from automaker Rivian, they likely won’t be fully deployed for another decade.
This year especially, Cyber Week sales faced public backlash across the globe. Protests broke out against consumerism in the United States, Europe, and other locales. For the tech companies, unfortunately, it was business as usual. In Paris, dozens gathered outside Amazon’s French headquarters and blocked various shopping and logistics centers across the city. Amazon, in a statement to the BBC, said that “it respected the right to protest but disagreed with the actions of these individuals.”
A disturbing pattern
Apple spent much of the year lobbying against the Right to Repair legislation that would potentially allow consumers to easily and economically fix their broken devices instead of being left with no option other than to buy new ones. Earlier this year, an Apple lobbyist managed to postpone the bill through what seemed to amount to fearmongering, telling members of the California State Assembly’s Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee that iPhones’ batteries may explode if consumers tried to get them replaced through third-party services.
The iPhone maker also makes it harder for anyone to disassemble and assemble its products. It even went as far as to limiting its phones’ functions when owners swapped a defective part out for a genuine Apple replacement through third-party repair programs.
On a personal note, when my MacBook Pro’s SSD died a couple of months ago, I was told by the Apple service rep that I had to get the entire motherboard replaced, which would cost me nearly as much as a new computer. Luckily, I did research online and found that it was possible for me to keep the laptop alive through an external SSD — and that’s just what I did.
Google also blocks ads from third-party repair programs, including trusted names like iFixit, arguing that third parties could give misleading tech support.
Apple does boast about how it now employs recycled components in a handful of its latest products like the MacBook Air. But those efforts barely make up for the impact new Apple devices have on the environment. The company, like most others, also runs a trade-in program, but that only gets you Apple Store credits or a discount on an Apple product. Meanwhile, the amount of waste Apple sends to landfills continues to be on the rise.
What’s more, true-wireless earphones — which are all the rage of late — like the Apple AirPods are nearly impossible to repair mainly because the internals of these devices are glued together at the factory to achieve that sleek, creaseless look. In iFixit’s repairability index, AirPods and the Beats Powerbeats Pro (also made by Apple) got abysmal 0/10 and 1/10 ratings, respectively.
In 2015, Apple sent over 13 million pounds of waste to landfills. Last year, that number reached 36.5 million pounds.
In order to achieve the sustainability promises, hardware makers like Apple and Google will also have to rethink their annual launch strategies. Releasing a new phone or laptop every year, sometimes without significant improvements but always with a big marketing push to convince users to upgrade, doesn’t fall in line with their supposed green goals.
CEO Jeff Bezos promised Amazon will be carbon-neutral by 2040. But the truth is that time frame is simply not acceptable as a climate emergency looms over our planet. Reports say the world is nowhere close to avoid global warming, and companies like Amazon are among the biggest contributors to greenhouse emissions.
Not paying their way
Tech companies incessantly exploit legal loopholes to pay less tax. A recent report alleged that in the last decade, they have successfully avoided paying a total of $100 billion in taxes. The study declared Amazon as the worst offender and found the e-commerce company paid just $3.4 billion this decade despite earning $960.5 billion in revenues. That brings Amazon’s effective tax rate to about 12.7%, whereas the headline tax rate in the United States has been 35%.
When Bezos announced a $98.5 million (0.09% of income) donation to several nonprofits supporting the homeless population, U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called him out and asked him to “just pay his taxes”.
Profiting from your personal data
Another topic these tech companies waxed lyrical about in 2019 was data privacy.
“Consumers shouldn’t have to tolerate another year of companies irresponsibly amassing huge user profiles, data breaches that seem out of control, and the vanishing ability to control our own digital lives.” wrote Apple’s Cook in a Time op-ed.
Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg outlined his vision for a privacy-focused future and social network. Google’s Pichai, in a New York Times op-ed, said: “We have a responsibility to lead. And we’ll do so in the same spirit we always have, by offering products that make privacy a reality for everyone.”
But those words began to lose weight as the year unfolded. Facebook suffered about a dozen data breaches and was at the center of a security scandal every other week. In April, a leak compromised the Facebook data of over 540 million users. In September, phone numbers of 419 million users were found on an unsecured server. These oversights ended up costing the tech giant billions over just the past year.
In July, the Federal Trade Commission slapped a $5 billion fine — the largest ever imposed on any company for violating user privacy — on Facebook for unlawfully compromising data of millions in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. On top of that, the social network was forced to pay an additional $100 million for issuing misleading statements.
In August, it was revealed that human contractors have been covertly listening to private conversations from voice assistants such as Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa, as well as Skype calls, and more. When called out, companies either made it optional or abandoned the practice altogether. But significant damage had already been done to their credibility as none of them, including the self-proclaimed pro-privacy Apple, alerted its users beforehand.
Despite explicitly saying it doesn’t on multiple occasions, Apple was also recently found collecting location data from iPhones, even when the owner had the setting turned off. It also accepts upward of $10 billion from Google, which it often likes to poke at for all the data it collects, in exchange for setting Google as the default search engine on Safari.
Google also rolled out a range of new security features in 2019. Most notably, it began allowing users to set their data on self-destruct mode. But the shortest duration you can configure is three months and experts say, by that time, Google’s algorithms would have already harvested and processed your data, rendering it mostly useless for users.
Moreover, the lines between politics and tech continued to blur as the U.S. gears up for the 2020 presidential elections — and no company was more in the Senate’s crosshairs than Facebook. The social network played a pivotal role in the 2016 elections and enabled organizations to misuse its reach to sway and manipulate voters.
At the end of 2018, Zuckerburg, in a lengthy post, reflected on his company’s past year and claimed they’ve “fundamentally altered their DNA to focus more on preventing harm in all our services.”
But that barely seems to be the case today. Facebook continues to overlook and undermine its platform’s impact on societies across the globe. The company, unlike Twitter, also refuses to fact-check political ads, allowing anyone to easily push propaganda and misinformation.
As actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen put it in his recent speech: “Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.”
Those are just the big ones. There are many sother examples of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies not living up to its lofty rhetoric.
Google, which “doubled down on its commitment to be a representative, equitable, and respectful workplace,” is still cracking down on unions and rally organizers. Most recently, the search engine giant fired four employees who protested against the company doing business with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The National Labor Relations Board is now investigating Google over the firings.
Amazon signed the following statement in August: “Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits.” Yet, just weeks after that, the e-commerce company cut medical benefits for hundreds of part-time Whole Foods workers.
This year marked itself as a period of great change for several of these companies. Apple parted ways with its renowned head of design, Jony Ive. Zuckerburg spent more time in Washington than Facebook’s California headquarters. Google faced the inevitable as its founders took a back seat and handed over the rains to Pichai.
2019 set the stage for how tech companies will be perceived for the next decade. Their breakthroughs will not be celebrated, but scrutinized. They oversee our generation’s most powerful communication channels and each one of their actions will have far greater ripples than they have before. The question is are they capable of looking past their stock values to deliver on the promises?
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