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Mark Zuckerberg is at it again. On March 30, just 24 days after his bombshell blog about moving Facebook from an open platform to “privacy-focused” communications, he came back with an equally head-turning op-ed in the Washington Post. The new piece calls for global regulation of internet companies like his in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability. What changed between March 6 and March 30? A white supremacist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 people and injuring 50 others. The first attack was streamed on Facebook Live by the perpetrator—and goes unmentioned in Zuckerberg’s op-ed.
The horrific attacks certainly qualify as harmful content (and “harmful content” in this instance would qualify as a new low in evasive euphemisms). But the livestreaming wasn’t simply the usual widespread publicity on which terrorists rely in order to terrify. The livestreaming was itself a terrorist attack. It put viewers in the scene, making secondary victims of those traumatized by watching it live.
Worse, that someone would use Facebook’s livestreaming feature that way should have been foreseen. From Robespierre, who used public executions to terrify the citizenry during the French Revolution, to Al Qaeda and Isis posting gruesome execution videos on the internet, terrorists through the ages have enlarged the scope of actual harm by getting as many people as possible to experience the horror. If a similar use of Facebook Live had been foreseen, it could have been foreclosed.
Certainly, many of the consequences, negative and positive, of the innovations that entrepreneurs unleash can’t be foreseen. Who, in the mid-fifteenth century when moveable type was developed, foresaw the role the printing press would play in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation? No one envisioned the environmental degradation that the internal combustion engine would cause, much less the hollowing out of cities that widespread automobile ownership would someday bring. The scientist who pioneered the synthesis of CFCs in the 1890s could not know that this highly efficient refrigerant would be seen in the 1980s to be destroying the ozone layer.
But many consequences can be foreseen, if not in precise detail then at least in broad outlines. Virtually everyone worries that the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT)—internet-connected devices from cars to medical devices—could mean a cyber security nightmare in which virtually anything could be hacked. Advances in genetics have sparked widespread discussion of such consequences as genetic discrimination by health insurance companies, the cloning of organisms and even eugenics. Or consider autonomous vehicles. Goldman Sachs economists recently predicted that when autonomous vehicles reach saturation they will throw 300,000 truck drivers per year out of work. McKinsey & Company predicts that up to 800 million workers globally could be displaced by technological innovations and as many as 375 million may need to be retrained to work in new occupational categories. Such foreknowledge gives society the opportunity if not to prevent such dislocations, then at least to mitigate their downsides instead of waiting until well after the fact.
For too long, we have defined good entrepreneurs in terms of innovation, financial returns and—as with Steve Jobs and, initially, Elon Musk—personal flair. Startups are celebrated and richly rewarded for the “disruptive potential” of their business models. And there seems to be something in the world of tech startups that actually encourages entrepreneurs to ignore social consequences. But as we know from the long history of entrepreneurship, disruption often goes far beyond upending industries to ultimately upending society. And the fundamental principle of entrepreneurship—that you do something so pleasing that people will gladly give you money for it—ensures ethical dilemmas at every turn. That’s why it’s doubly important that we insist that entrepreneurs honestly assess the possible consequences of their activities and forewarn us about them. We must find ways to make entrepreneurs who are good in the commercial and creative senses of the term into entrepreneurs who are good in the ethical sense.
I’m not talking about catching the frauds and criminals or the founders whose businesses entail adverse social consequences that are obvious and intended from the outset. Cheats and amoral people are to be found in businesses of all sizes in virtually all times and places, and we have to rely on rigorous regulation, vigorous investigation and public indignation to keep them in check.
Zuckerberg is to be applauded for asking to be regulated (insofar as his suggestions aren’t self-serving). But the list of Facebook’s unforeseen debacles is long and getting longer: helping undermine democracy around the world, failing to protect users’ data, amplifying hate speech and, now, according to a lawsuit filed against the company by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “encouraging, enabling and causing housing discrimination.”
Enough is enough.
Here are some simple mechanisms through which ‘good’ entrepreneurs might become ethical entrepreneurs who are thoughtful and diligent about foreseeing the possible consequences of their products and services:
Host ongoing discussion. All entrepreneurial enterprises, from tech startups to more mundane businesses like new restaurants or domestic services, should invite commentary on their possible social impacts and post it on their websites. This is not to be confused with the feedback feature or even the public complaint area that some fearless companies maintain on their websites. Rather it should be exclusively focused on discussion of the possible social consequences of the company’s products and services. Ideally, the discussion would be curated by an external, neutral party; and something like a “Future Talk” tab would become as ubiquitous at the top of home pages as the “About Us” tab.
Conduct a future social impact audit.
Many companies conduct internal audits to determine how well they are doing against goals in areas like energy consumption, sustainability and the like. But these audits don’t include unfettered speculation about possible adverse social consequences of the company’s offerings (like how livestreaming might be abused by bad actors, how GPS features in an app aimed at children might endanger them or how later adopters of an innovation like a new wonder drug might put it to destructive uses for which it wasn’t intended). Startups should not only conduct these audits of future social impact, but do so often, given the frequency with which many of them pivot and the rapidity with which previously unforeseen implications come into focus.
Issue regular statements of future social impact. Many companies also regularly issue social impact statements, sometimes called “corporate responsibility statements,” that detail how the company’s operations are currently affecting knowable factors like energy consumption, sustainability, job creation, labor conditions, philanthropy and volunteer work. But, like social audits, these statements don’t include possible future social impacts that the company has at least considered. Some of those possible impacts might be welcome, but they shouldn’t merely be recitations of glowing promises from a prospectus.
How do you keep them honest? With today’s corporate responsibility statements we’ve learned to be vigilant about distinguishing companies sincerely seeking sustainability from companies engaging in largely cosmetic “greenwashing.” There’s no reason we can’t be similarly discerning about future social impact statements that whitewash the future. And socially conscious investors who have developed environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria for screening investments can expand the social component to include a company’s willingness to think through the future.
At the very least, we should expect our entrepreneurs to look ahead to the possible consequences of their activities and, most importantly, to tell us what they see. No more saying “let the market decide” and “it’s not my problem.” The market is a notoriously poor arbiter of ethics and yes, it is your problem, even if it doesn’t show up for another 15 years.
April 4, 2019 at 05:17AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs