The tech world told a lot of lies in 2018, and it was caught in those lies at what feels like an unprecedented rate. Some Silicon Valley players even began to wake up to the lies they told themselves over the years. With such a flurry of falsehoods, it’s worth taking a look back to see who went big in the year that public trust in tech really started to tank.
For many reasons, there’s been a lot of handwringing over what reporters should and should not call a “lie.” Some have argued that one definition of a lie (“an assertion of something known or believed by the speaker or writer to be untrue with intent to deceive”) is difficult to prove because it’s impossible to know what intent exist in a person’s heart. That’s some bullshit relativism, and most lies are plain on their face. But for the sake of the pedants out there, we’ll just define the following tech lies with Webster’s other definition: “something that misleads or deceives.” Some of the lies clearly fit the first definition, others are more firmly rooted in the second, but they’re all lies.
This time last year, people gathered around the dinner table for the holidays and avoided discussing politics by explaining cryptocurrency to each other. Digital tokens and their various schemes were exploding after a year of steady gains, reaching a precipice on December 16, when bitcoin hit a high of $20,000.
Heading into the new year, virtually everyone believed in one way or another that cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology had a bright future. For masters of the universe like Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, the talking point changed from “bitcoin is a fraud” to “blockchain is real.” Mid-level Wall Street traders were suddenly excited to engage in futures betting for or against bitcoin. Thomas Lee, head of research at Fundstrat Global Advisors and someone mainstream finance analysts paid attention to, predicted and kept predicting that bitcoin would hit $25k. And John McAfee still has a bet going that bitcoin will hit $1 million by 2020—he’s promised to eat his own genitals if he’s wrong. And no predictions could top the run-of-the-mill enthusiasts who simply screamed “hodl” (meaning don’t sell) because it’s all going “to the moon.”
It did not go to the moon.
In February, the bubble burst and cryptocurrency prices have struggled to make gains ever since. By December 2018, 80 percent of bitcoin’s previous value was wiped out. Dimon was back to saying he doesn’t “give a shit” about bitcoin. Some companies attached blockchain to their name to drum up interest and found out that’s a way to get investigated by the FEC. Of the top ICOs (initial coin offerings), 86 percent fell below their initial offering price, and a third of them lost all of their value. And well, McAfee presumably has his private bits still intact, for now. Crypto-cash may not be dead yet, but 2018 proved it is by no means ready for launch.
You can bet if it’s coming out of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s mouth, it’s probably at least part bullshit. The man spent 2017 claiming that net neutrality harmed investment in broadband infrastructure in order to gut our protections for a free and open internet—an assertion that’s patently false. And while blindly pushing forward toward his victory, he ignored the fact that the legally required period that the public is allowed to comment on the agency’s policy changes was “corrupted” by fraudulent comments stealing the identities of real Americans, according to the New York Attorney General’s office.
Not only were the comments corrupted, but when the initial commenting window opened on the FCC’s website, it suddenly crashed. The FCC claimed it was the victim of a DDoS attack that prevented the public from voicing their opinions about net neutrality. It just so happens that “attack” occurred right around the time John Oliver’s HBO show ran a popular segment encouraging people to head to the site and leave a comment.
Despite the evidence of fraudulent comments and widespread suspicion that the DDoS excuse was ridiculous, the agency stuck with its story throughout 2018. At least, it stuck with that story until August when an inspector general report exposed the fact that senior FCC officials misled the public and Congress about what happened. As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel put it, “The Inspector General Report tells us what we knew all along: the FCC’s claim that it was the victim of a DDoS attack during the net neutrality proceeding is bogus.” Pai himself knew the DDoS claim was false for seven months but said he couldn’t speak out because of the investigation.
It seems like Pai will wiggle his way out of the DDoS mess, but the larger issue of fraudulent comments on the FCC’s website is now part of DOJ investigation and far from over. Any hope of overturning the disgraceful reversal of net neutrality, however, appears to be fully buried.
It doesn’t even rank on the top 10 list of embarrassing admissions by Facebook this year, but it changed the way Sheryl Sandberg is viewed by the public in a way that may be irreversible.
In November, the New York Times published a detailed account of Facebook’s internal struggles over Russian operatives using its platform in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election and public backlash over its “fake news” problem. The report revealed that Facebook may have flirted with spreading conspiracy theories itself.
The investigation found that Facebook hired an opposition research firm called Definers Public Affairs to investigate its critics and spread negative talking points about them in the media. One of the prominent critics who was targeted by Definers was investor and philanthropist George Soros. The firm wrote dubious stories on its own news site about Soros funding a group called Freedom from Facebook and worked to disseminate them among journalists. As a billionaire supporter of progressive causes, Soros is often named as the bogeyman behind every grassroots organization on the left and the attacks are often shrouded in anti-Semitic sentiment.
In response to the report, Facebook said it had ended its relationship with Definers and Sandberg claimed she knew nothing about hiring the group or its work. She said that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Soros were “abhorrent.” That may be how she genuinely feels, but she also said that Definers was “trying to show that some of the activity against us that appeared to be grassroots also had major organizations behind them.”
The problem is Sandberg’s statement implies that Soros really was the shadowy direct benefactor behind Freedom From Facebook. The truth is much more complicated, and there’s no reason to believe Soros had ever even heard of the group, which received support from the Open Markets Institute, a think tank that the billionaire has donated to.
When it was revealed that Sandberg had personally ordered separate opposition research against Soros, it solidified the perception that Facebook was actively participating in the conspiracy culture that it’s been criticized for fueling with its algorithmic news feed. Ironically, Freedom from Facebook itself had previously been criticized for using anti-Semitic imagery to satirize the social network. Just as it’s often unclear whether a lie is intentional, we have no idea if either Sandberg or the protest group had any anti-Semitic intentions.
But the episode showed Sandberg to be a cutthroat executive who will go to great lengths to protect Facebook from criticism and bury its enemies. That’s a reputation many execs would welcome, but it undermines a carefully crafted image of do-gooderism that Sandberg has spent years building, and it sparked a fresh round of debate about the “Lean In” philosophy that she’s evangelized.
The most devastating merger of the year was AT&T and Time-Warner’s unholy union into a media machine with a telecom background operating under an FCC with seemingly no interest in policing anti-competitive practices. We still don’t know what the worst of the consequences will be, but we’ve already seen it strong-arm rival cable providers into paying more for HBO and the shut down of a beloved streaming service that wasn’t too big to fail. When AT&T argued that it needed to be bigger in order to create more competition, no one thought that would mean it just wants to plan a bunch of streaming services that will compete with each other and line AT&T’s pockets no matter which one you choose.
We can argue the legality of big companies merging with big companies until we’re blue in the face, but bigness is one of the biggest problems in the world today. The bigger companies are, the more power they acquire and the more difficult it becomes to hold them accountable. Current antitrust regulations have proven inadequate, and they are even more useless when the FTC is so bad at enforcing them.
Companies like Facebook and Twitter are too big to enforce their own policies, Amazon is too big for small businesses to compete against, and telecoms are so big they write laws prohibiting your city from building its own network. Venture capitalists now want to feel that your startup can either accomplish the impossible feat of toppling one of these giants or that you at least have a solid plan to be acquired by one of the big boys. Bigness doesn’t create competition, it pulls everything into a black hole that’s hostile to consumers and citizens around the world.
Amazon made this one really simple. In 2017, the online retailer asked cities to participate in a contest of self-debasement. The city that offered one of the world’s most valuable companies the most free shit would have the honor of being the new home of Amazon’s second headquarters. Mayors and governors across the nation fell over each other to throw billions of dollars in subsidies at the company that’s owned by the richest man in the world. Some politicians made embarrassing viral videos asking Alexa which city Amazon should choose. New York’s governor offered to change his name to Amazon Cuomo.
That last one seems to have worked because after spending a year gathering up untold amounts of valuable data that cities were happy to fork over, Amazon chose New York City for HQ2. But it also chose Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. Amazon cut its employment promises in half for each location and chose two places that were widely considered front-runners from the beginning. Sorry, Tucson, that cactus you sent to Jeff Bezos was never going to compete with Amazon getting a foothold in New York’s Silicon Alley or the prospect of having prime placement to butter up politicians in DC.
3. We will not use AI for purposes that contravene widely accepted principles of international law and human rights - Google
Google has been at odds with its own employees all year on a range of issues. Along the way, it has on occasion listened to criticism and made some course reversals. But when it comes to Project Dragonfly, its confidential project to launch a censored search engine in China, the company has been reluctant to admit it has even been working on such an initiative.
The Intercept has led the way with reporting on Dragonfly as Google has gone from ignoring inquiries on the project to using phrases like “we’re not close to launching a search product in China” or “right now, we have no plans to launch in China.” Members of Congress could barely pull any more information out of Google CEO Sundar Pichai, which isn’t surprising considering the company reportedly locked its own privacy and security teams out of the project.
At a hearing with the House Judiciary Committee this month, Rep. David Cicilline pointed out the fact that Dragonfly appears to violate the set of corporate principles for working with AI that Pichai signed his name to in June. One of the principles pledges that Google won’t “design or deploy” AI in “technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.” One could argue that the algorithms Google uses to learn how to optimize search don’t count as AI, but algorithms are often one of the many things we’re referring to when we talk about AI right now. Even if Pichai wanted to split hairs, he’d also have to say that Google is willing to violate human rights with its other products, just not AI. And if you don’t believe that operating a censored search engine in China is a human rights violation, you can take it up with the sixty human rights organizations that disagree.
God bless Elon Musk’s addiction to Twitter and his seeming belief that he’s completely untouchable. While most tech lies are shrouded in layers of plausible deniability, unspecific language, and de-centralized responsibility, Elon gave us a straight-forward whopper this summer that briefly threatened his ability to run Tesla.
One blistering August afternoon, virtually out of nowhere, Musk tweeted, “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” He followed up that market-shaking tweet with, “Shareholders could either to sell at 420 or hold shares & go private.” The choice of 420 for the share price made it seem like a joke because the number is also weed slang. But he insisted he was serious. And he may have been serious, but funding was not secured, Tesla did not go private, an SEC investigation resulted in Musk losing his chairmanship of the company, and we endured two subsequent interviews in which he cried.
There were a lot of bizarre or quirky developments in Musk’s life and behavior this year, but most of them were harmless. It’s not a big deal if Musk wants to smoke weed with Joe Rogan or be a big dork with his pop-star girlfriend. Maybe he shouldn’t go around accusing people of being pedophiles, and he really must have better things to do than argue about socialism with strangers online. But risking the future of a company that many people are counting on to lead a green energy renaissance with an ill-advised tweet was a really stupid gamble.
Still, it was refreshing to have a CEO give us a clear-cut lie that was impossible to weasel out of. Elon Musk, a rebel to the end.
It was always going to be you, Facebook, you’re clearly the biggest liar of the year. From day one, it’s been in Facebook’s DNA to misrepresent its true intentions and scurry away in contrition when it’s called out. The social network produces so much scandal that newspapers are hiring dedicated reporters just to keep up with it. (Facebook’s a job creator!) The public is tired of it, politicians are tired of it, the stock market is tired of it, and Facebook’s employees are tired of it.
It’s hard to choose just one lie from Facebook’s year of duplicity, but “we were too slow to react” takes the top honors. The company uses this talking point for all manner of trouble it finds itself in, and it just doesn’t cut it. The phrase implies that Facebook is just this incredible experiment operating in unknown territory and responding to setbacks as they come along. Knowing that a third-party app pilfered millions of users’ data in a manner that violated Facebook’s rules and waiting years to do anything about it is not a case of being too slow to react. It’s a case of willingly ignoring issues that executives aren’t interested in addressing unless they’re caught in the act.
Mark Zuckerberg has been feigning naïveté for 14 years as CEO of Facebook, and the biggest lie of his career has been that he’s just trying to make the world a better place.