For years, tech companies pitched their products as tools for making the world a better place. Now, a growing number of tech veterans who were instrumental in building companies ranging from Google to Facebook and Twitter have admitted they didn’t give enough thought into how their products could be used to do the opposite.
The latest to speak up about the lack of foresight by the tech set is seasoned entrepreneur and investor Max Levchin, who is best known as the cofounder and former chief technology officer of PayPal. Levchin says that in the early days of building the online payments system, which was founded in 1998, founders were mostly thinking of the benefits it would provide.
“I remember building PayPal, we were filled with libertarian ideals. We thought that it would be great to give the world a new currency,” he said during an interview with CNN Business at the Collision tech conference in Toronto this week. “We were not really asking the question, ‘Is it good for humanity?’”
Most tech entrepreneurs idealistically focused on scaling their products at all costs, and the hype around their services centered on the promises of doing something good. Facebook and Twitter, for example, harped on the intention to connect the world and allow for freedom of expression, respectively. But these very services have been used to corrode democracies, spread misinformation, and to abuse and harass individuals, for example. Google, which had a “don’t be evil” clause listed on its code of conduct for 18 years, has found itself in the spotlight over various ethical concerns including its canceled “Project Maven” collaboration with the Pentagon.
Some Silicon Valley names joined together last year to launch the nonprofit Center for Humane Technology, including Roger McNamee. The tech investor and former adviser to Mark Zuckerberg has been a vocal critic for the past couple years, taking issue with the business models of Facebook and other tech giants and their prioritization of ad dollars. Other former Facebook executives have also publicly questioned the company’s ethics.
There are also growing concerns about the emergence of new technologies like Amazon’s facial recognition software, Rekognition, which critics worry could have potential civil and human rights repercussions.
Ev Williams, the former CEO and cofounder of Twitter, said Twitter should have invested more heavily in abuse earlier, and that he “personally underestimated the looming problem during my brief tenure as CEO.”
Entrepreneurs today should be prepared to have nuanced answers to questions about morality, says Levchin, who is currently CEO of financial services startup Affirm, which he co-founded, as well as chairman and cofounder of period-tracking app Glow. He said entrepreneurs need to have the tough conversations early on, and be prepared to throw their weight behind their moral stances.
“You have to stand for something and deliver on that stance. … Any Silicon Valley company that wants to scale itself to real meaningful size has to take an extremely moral view and speak to and be able to defend its actions and occasionally contend with very challenging, moral questions. The only way that Silicon Valley establishes that trust is by actively talking about those questions and answering with actions.”
He says that when founding Affirm in 2013, morality was a central question. The company wants to offer a credit card alternative by providing loans for purchases, specifically for people who may not normally be approved by traditional banks. The loans come with a simple interest rate and no late fees. It says it does not sell or share user data with third parties.
Levchin moved to Chicago from the Soviet Union in 1991 when he was just 16 and his family had “just a few hundred dollars to our name.” He said he was “declined for more credit cards than I can recall” because he didn’t have a credit history in college. He says he was fiscally responsible but no banks would take a chance on him.
“We can choose to decline an application for a loan if it is for an item that we don’t support,” Levchin said, adding that debt is “a very weighty, morality-centric issue.” He asks: “Is it good to borrow money? I think it is, if you are investing it in a better version of your future self.”
As questions about the ethics and morals of tech platforms continue to be raised by critics, entrepreneurs may have to be more realistic about the benevolence and malevolence of their services. Meanwhile, some are growing tired of the frequently cited notion that technology is amoral, and that people make it bad or good.
“If we continue to say … ‘we are building devices, they get used for good and they get used for bad. That’s not really our concern.’ I think that’s exactly what brought us to this point,” Levchin added.