The problem is that corporate ethics are usually based on the philosophies of Milton Friedman, an economist whose heyday was in the 1970s. Corporations are playing by a rule book that is tragically out of date.
Beware the Invisible Hand
Friedman said, “The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.”
This is a porting over of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” theory from economics to ethics: the idea that an open and free marketplace is self-regulating and, in the end, the model that is the most virtuous to the greatest number of people will take hold.
That was a philosophy born in another time, referring to a decidedly different market. Friedman’s “virtue” depends on a few traditional market conditions, idealized in the concept of a perfect market: “a market where the sellers of a product or service are free to compete fairly, and sellers and buyers have complete information.”
Inherent in Friedman’s definition of market ethics is the idea of a deliberate transaction, a value trade driven by rational thought. This is where the concept of “complete information” comes in. This information is what's required for a rational evaluation of the value trade. When we talk about the erosion of ethics we see in tech, we quickly see that the prerequisite of a deliberate and rational transaction is missing -- and with it, the conditions needed for an ethical “invisible hand."
The other assumption in Friedman’s definition is a marketplace that encourages open and healthy competition. This gives buyers the latitude to make the choice that best aligns with their requirements.
But when we’re talking about markets that tend to trend towards evil behaviors, we have to understand that there’s a slippery slope that ends in a place far different than the one Friedman idealized.
Advertising as a Revenue Model
For developers of user-dependent networks like Google and Facebook, using advertising sales for revenue was the path of least resistance for adoption -- and, once adopted by users, to profitability. It was a model co-opted from other forms of media, so everybody was familiar with it. But, in the adoption of that model, the industry took several steps away from the idea of a perfect market.
First of all, you have significantly lowered the bar required for that rational value exchange calculation. For users, there is no apparent monetary cost. Our value judgement mechanisms idle down because it doesn’t appear as if the protection they provide is needed.
In fact, the opposite happens. The reward center of our brain perceives a bargain and starts pumping the accelerator. We rush past the accept buttons to sign up, thrilled at the new capabilities and convenience we receive for free. That’s the first problem.
The second is that the minute you introduce advertising, you lose the transparency that's part of the perfect market. There is a thick layer of obfuscation that sits between “users” and “producers.” The smoke screen is required because of the simple reality that the best interests of the user are almost never aligned with the best interests of the advertiser.
In this new marketplace, advertising is a zero-sum game. For the advertiser to win, the user has to lose. The developer of platforms hide this simple arithmetic behind a veil of secrecy and baffling language.
Products That are a Little Too Personal
The new marketplace is different in another important way: The products it deals in are unlike any products we’ve ever seen before.
The average person spends about a third of his or her time online, mostly interacting with a small handful of apps and platforms. Facebook alone accounts for almost 20% of all our waking time.
This reliance on these products reinforces our belief that we’re getting the bargain of a lifetime: All the benefits the platform provides are absolutely free to us! Of course, in the time we spend online, we are feeding these tools a constant stream of intimately personal information about ourselves.
What is lurking behind this benign facade is a troubling progression of addictiveness. Because revenue depends on advertising sales, two factors become essential to success: the attention of users, and information about them.
An offer of convenience or usefulness “for free” is the initial hook, but then it becomes essential to entice them to spend more time with the platform and also to volunteer more information about themselves. The most effective way to do this is to make them more and more dependent on the platform.
Now, you could build conscious dependency by giving users good, rational reasons to keep coming back. Or, you could build dependence subconsciously, by creating addicts. The first option is good business that follows Friedman’s philosophy. The second option is just evil. Many tech platforms -- Facebook included -- have chosen to go down both paths.
The New Monopolies
The final piece of Friedman’s idealized marketplace that’s missing is the concept of healthy competition. In a perfect marketplace, the buyer's cost of switching is minimal. You have a plethora of options to choose from, and you're free to pursue the one best for you.
This is definitely not the case in the marketplace of online platforms and tools like Google and Facebook. Because they are dependent on advertising revenues, their survival is linked to audience retention. To this end, they have constructed virtual monopolies by ruthlessly eliminating or buying up any potential competitors.
Further, under the guise of convenience, they have imposed significant costs on those that do choose to leave. The net effect of this is that users are faced with a binary decision: Opt into the functionality and convenience offered, or opt out. There are no other choices.
Whom Do You Serve?
Friedman also said in a 1970 paper that the only social responsibility of a business is to Increase its profits. But this begs the further question, “What must be done -- and for whom -- to increase profits?” If it’s creating a better product so users buy more, then there is an ethical trickle-down effect that should benefit all.
But this isn’t the case if profitability is dependent on selling more advertising. Now we have to deal with an inherent ethical conflict. On one side, you have the shareholders and advertisers. On the other, you have users. As I said, for one to win, the other must lose.If we’re looking for the root of all evil, we’ll probably find it here.