Back in 2016, I wrote a piece about my trust issues with tech companies and in light of the recent Mark Zuckerberg testimony, I thought I would revisit the topic to see how much has changed.
Facebook Growing Pains
Let’s face it, you’re lucky if you can find anyone who claims to trust Facebook these days. Even Zuckerberg himself, when peppered with questions from Senators for nearly 10 hours, admitted that Facebook has no real competition in social media. Now monopolies aren’t evil by default but it’s very rare to find one that puts their customers’ interests ahead of their obsession with growth and profits. And of course there’s that famous photo taken from within Facebook headquarters of Zuckerberg’s webcam covered so there seems to be distrust coming from all sides.
I brought up Facebook first because they have moved to the top of my list of companies that I do not trust. I don’t even use Facebook which might help explain why Google took the crown of least trusted companies last time around but I’ll deal more with Google in a bit. Facebook’s apology tour has gone on for over a decade with no end in sight. If you’re trying to remember all of their faux pas, my playlist below containing 19 media appearances might help jog your memory.
Mistrust and user upset simply boil down to one thing for me – advertising. I have no problem with advertising in general but when you create a platform that only strives for user engagement, you are not putting user interests above other interests and that includes your advertisers. We all know the drill. If you click on a video about vegetarianism, you will next be fed (no pun intended) a series of vegan videos followed by raw vegan videos followed by fasting videos and so on. Facebook (and the rest of the Internet) knows that extremism is rewarded by user engagement in form of comments, dislikes and shares. But the algorithms don’t care about user feelings or even facts. These systems are only in place to generate user engagement and user engagement is only in place to serve advertising dollars. After all, Facebook’s real customers are their advertisers, not the users.
“You are our customer. You are a jewel, and we care,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook in a recent interview with Recode on privacy. I cannot imagine Mark Zuckerberg even attempting to mouth these words but that didn’t stop him from criticizing Cook’s remarks as “extremely glib”. Meanwhile, Facebook still refuses to categorize their company as a media entity even though they produce and distribute more content than any other media company in the world. They continue to apologize each time their algorithms fail to correctly identify hate speech or fake news ads and yet they stake their entire company on AI and advanced algorithms to accurately populate users’ feeds. This wasn’t intended to be a Facebook hit piece but it sure is looking that way so I’ll change the subject to Google.
Grown Up Google
Google has been making some important gestures for the protection of user data in recent months. With GDPR implementation deadlines fast approaching, Google has stepped up their game in an effort to comply not just with regulators but also with their customers’ wishes for more transparency and control over their own data. Since Google is essentially still an advertising company they have addressed privacy concerns using some GDPR designations such as controller, processor and co-controller. The details are too complex to go into here but essentially, Google will act as any three of these in order to maintain control over how data is processed and share the responsibility for protecting it.
Unlike Facebook, Google is proactively taking self-regulation seriously. That does not always lead to the best outcome but it does show that Google is listening to their critics and attempting to pivot. Another big step in that direction comes from Google’s rejuvenated hardware push. By all accounts Pixel 2 is not only a well reviewed smartphone but also a major step in the right direction towards data privacy and security. Pixel 2 and 2 Xl models are the first to introduce a tamper resistant security module to any smartphone running Android OS. When coupled with Pixel’s frequent security updates, this creates enterprise-grade security for your smartphone. Unfortunately, Android continues to flounder over security. When a German security firm recently looked under the hood, they found that hundreds of different 3rd party devices running Android not only failed to implement security patches but also went on to misinform users about the status of those patches. Weak security is endemic for most 3rd party Android devices because device makers continually fail to offer timely security updates when Google issues them.
The other big players, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon subscribe to a slightly or wildly different business models depending on their approach. There seems to be a distinct correlation between the reliance on revenue from hardware sales and a company’s collection and treatment of their customers’ data. And this treatment can greatly effect trust. Apple is known for engendering massive customer loyalty and trust. They make their hardware and software and still make most of their revenue from hardware sales direct to the consumer. This gives Apple not just the most control over the customer experience, but also the most control over the security for that hardware. It also means that Apple doesn’t have to scrape user data for advertising and marketing purposes. They know exactly how their customers use their devices and do not need any data aggregators or advertisers in the mix because they can do it themselves. This might offer little comfort to privacy advocates but when you consider Facebook’s lax data security and sharing standards (i.e., Cambridge Analytica) Apple is in a completely different league than Facebook in terms of the amount of hands on your data.
Or to put it another way, the expense to customers is all up front with Apple. For a steep price, you get luxury tech products all contained in a walled garden ecosphere. This includes free security and feature patches for free. With every other tech giant, you pay less up front but pay more and/or risk a lot more down the line. Microsoft has introduced a sleek line of laptop/tablet hybrids and stylish desktops that rival Apple’s iMac but they still run Windows. Microsoft also makes the bulk of their revenue from desktop OS and Office software sales. Their hardware lineup is promising but still nascent so they continue to rely on malware plagued Windows and software subscription models running mostly on 3rd party hardware. This creates a challenging environment for Microsoft. As the provider for more laptop, desktop and enterprise software than any company in the world, they need to maintain customer trust so they lose a lot of ground when cyber criminals rank and prefer to target Microsoft exploits over Adobe and Android. These are the kind of supporters you don’t want behind your platform.
Amazon is on track to surpass everyone in terms of overall valuation. They just announced over 100 million Prime subscribers, they have millions of smart speakers in homes and even have a growing brick and mortar presence. In Fact, according to The Verge and Reticle Research, Amazon is trusted over all the major tech companies and just below your bank. So how does this happen when Amazon is known worldwide for their predatory pricing? I think it comes back to their core business of retail. Since Amazon sells so many physical items to so many customers, they have become the de facto online retailer for most. This same day or 2 day delivery promise equates to trust from their customers but very little is known about Amazon’s massive data collection efforts. Amazon keeps specific sales numbers of Echo, Fire TV and Kindles to themselves and they’re even cagier when it comes to user data.
Echo smart speakers are always on and listening for the command but did you know that they are also recording every word after each time the command is issued? This data has begun to be subpoenaed by law enforcement for various investigations and court cases but as I discussed in my first blog on tech company trust, Amazon’s transparency report’s leave a lot to be desired. And what about that creepy laugh? In an attempt to respond to customers and critics, Amazon only raised more questions regarding the random laugh experienced by many Echo users. As an Amazon Prime subscriber, I clearly see the value of their online shopping service but I do not confuse that for their fixation on placing cameras inside most of their products including alarm clocks, smart speakers and fashion tip technology. Like Google, the data they scrape off my account seems to follow me around the Internet, but also like Facebook, the data that Amazon gleans off me seems to only direct me back to Amazon itself. So Amazon acts as both an open Internet entity and a closed online store for members only. This raises all kinds of concerns that we are now just beginning to wade through with Facebook.
Of course there are many more big players that I have not covered here including Instagram (owned by Facebook), WhatsApp (owned by Facebook), Twitter and a whole slew of Asian tech companies like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. China AI data advancements are growing faster than the U.S. but U.S. tech companies are still ahead in most areas for now. If nothing else comes from the Facebook election and testimony fiasco, at least there is still a chance that regular users will come to understand the value of their data. Until that happens, there is no government regulation or self regulation that can truly help users decide which company to place their trust in.