Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar, who has been reporting on business and tech for 30 years, opened a credit card bill to find that her young son had bought $900 worth of $1.99 in-app purchases on a soccer video game. As a mother, she was horrified; as a journalist, fascinated. How had the spunky startups working out of basements and garages evolved into behemoths that know everything about their customers—including how to manipulate a kid into charging a major appliance’s worth of money to play a sports game on a phone? That question sparked her next book, Don’t Be Evil (Currency, Nov.).
What do you see as the turning point that shifted the FANG companies—Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google—from dazzle-eyed startups to profit-focused juggernauts?
When Google figured out how to capture and monetize our personal data. Google is the pioneer of surveillance capitalism. You’re being surveilled everywhere, and your data is the new oil of our economy—and the country’s most valuable resource. We need to know what this means for our economics, our politics, and our brains. These companies are the new too-big-to-fail institutions. We’re engaging in transactions every minute; you have no idea how much your activity is worth to Google and Facebook. This wealth generation isn’t inherently bad, but it needs to be shared with the people whose data is being sold. We need new policies to harness this wealth; this will be bigger than the Industrial Revolution.
What will it take for this to happen?
Aside from the basics of privacy regulation, we need a strong national privacy bill of rights. Modern antitrust regulations can’t handle this—they only address dollars, not data. Digital dividends have been proposed in California, giving users a piece of the $80 billion being generated by digital ad revenue and the sale of customer data. Voters could also push for a sovereign wealth fund to pay for education and infrastructure.
What does this shift mean for the future of tech?
We’re seeing a crisis going on within the tech workforce; coders and engineers are the smartest human capital in the country. They’re saying, “Wait, are we developing these features just so they can be hacked by Russia or China?” They’re starting to question what they’re doing and how their ideas can be put in service to society at large.
What’s one thing these companies could do differently to change their impact for the better?
For the last 40 years, we’ve been a consumer-led rather than citizen-led economy. It’s the result of Reaganomics: these companies, like the biggest banks, have proven themselves ill-suited to self-regulation. Their business model is monetizing our attention. As citizens, we should be forcing our politicians to ask: How should we be splitting this wealth? What regulations should be put on these companies? As we move into the internet of things [a future state in which a wide range of household and other everyday items are connected to the internet], all firms are collecting and monetizing your data; do we want to live in a surveillance capitalism in which we don’t get to share in that wealth? We can change this. These companies have too much power, but we can take that power back.