And why they should make a commitment to social responsibility from the start
“Don’t be evil” — Google’s unofficial slogan since 2001.
When I first heard that, I was around 12 years old, and I didn’t realize Google was a for-profit business. I naively saw it as an institution working for the good of society. That was before I understood that any functioning organization has to be sustained by a minimum amount of funding or revenue, and that usually requires a profitable business model to be in place. But what happens when side-effects of the business model detract from the socially beneficial motives, because profit is a higher priority for the company?
With the rise of the the web and high-speed wireless internet connections, the limits of corporate growth for tech firms are now practically boundless, notwithstanding those bounds imposed by nature. Facebook has recently reached a standstill in user growth only because they have practically reached every single human on earth with a mobile internet connection. But is Facebook’s mission of “connecting people” really a social mission with the goal of benefiting society, or is it a distraction — a clever alibi — for their own narcissistic profit-driven growth and expansion? If recent events are any indication (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), the answer is clear. Despite minor policy shifts and PR efforts to downplay the situation, Facebook’s irresponsibility — and that of other companies who follow its example — will only be exacerbated as long as we choose to sit back and do nothing about it.
Technology as a vehicle for profit
Technology nowadays — regardless of if it has ever been — is not inherently neutral in its impact on society, because its use is dominated by for-profit institutions, meaning that they will use it to further their corporate and financial motives over anything else. These corporations often have large R&D budgets, pushing the direction of new technological development in their favor. When it comes to academic research, it is often funded at least in part by corporations. And as for startups, if they have any significantly advanced or unique technology, they will likely get bought out by the larger, dominant corporations. The resulting trend is that tech companies become profitable for reasons that are unrelated to their efforts to benefit society, and use that profit to develop new technologies, contributing to their impenetrable market grasp and a lack of viable (and healthy) competition from smaller players in the field.
Society can no longer afford to support companies who prioritize profit over social responsibility.
There is a concerning number of potentially dangerous technologies becoming available, with the rise of deepfakes, and weaponized drones; not to mention the threat of targeted misinformation. Aside from government regulation, which is often lacking and ineffective, there is practically nothing to control the proliferation of such technologies. As a result, a company cannot be held accountable for any undesired future outcomes unless it can be proven that it tried to avoid them.
This is why it’s time for tech companies to articulate their socially responsible mission from the start, and build the company with that in mind — rather than purely off the back of a technological innovation or a timely solution. This is not to say a startup should not leverage groundbreaking technology in its products or services. It’s rather pointing out the need for a crucial criterion in the vision statement of every new company — whether it be in the form of a knowledge transfer proposal or an addendum to a tech startup’s pitch deck to investors.
Meanwhile, those on the investing side (stock traders, venture capitalists, startup accelerators, etc.) must take this factor into account as an essential element in every company they choose to invest in. In this way, the stakeholders (users and investors) of such companies can reasonably hold the latter responsible should there be any deviation from the intended socially responsible outcomes. Just as an investor typically would sell their shares after a period of low earnings, so they should when social impact is not made along the same principles as was expected when the investment was made.
Social responsibility is not just for NGOs
There is certainly a growing trend of companies doing just that; gaining traction purely from a social mission on top of effective technology. Twitter-style social platform Mastodon, for example, provides several options for privacy of content posted to it’s decentralized platform, eliminating what it calls “corporate surveillance”. Duckduckgo, meanwhile, offers an alternative search tool which prides itself on not tracking your personal information.
If these companies are sign of things to come, we can expect that the current cycle of corporate growth and financial investments is bound to undergo a massive shift in priorities, and for the better. With such a paradigm change, new companies will be presented with new opportunities to develop products/services for social good without having to consider the profitability right away. This shift will start to create alignment between that which is developed upon and that which is good for society. Imagine the countless ideas that have been discarded simply because they could not independently generate enough revenue to sustain a business. It would be a better world if society were to reward (well-executed) positive intentions, as much as it rewards profitability. Socially responsible business models should not be limited only to non-profits and NGOs, but rather become normalized across all sectors and corporate entities.
Business has always been at the intersection between technology and society — the world’s great economic powers arose in perfect correlation with their technological progress. But what is so obvious on paper has become overlooked in practice, having been obscured by the mire of misguided political regulation, sensationalized-media, and naive-speculation. But now more than ever, it is urgent that we starting expecting corporations to act — first and foremost — in the interest of society, and if not, be subject to the invisible hand of decreased demand and eventual demise.