In her new book, Don’t Be Evil, Financial Times journalist Rana Foroohar traces Big Tech’s evolution from innovative and exciting young companies to global digital titans that monopolise our attention, violate our privacy and threaten our democracies. Below, Foroohar describes her first encounter with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin
I first encountered the celebrated Google founders, Page and Brin, not in the Valley, but in Davos, the Swiss gathering spot of the global power elite, where they’d taken over a small chalet to meet with a select group of media. The year was 2007. The company had just purchased YouTube a few months back, and it seemed eager to convince skeptical journalists that this acquisition wasn’t yet another death blow to copyright, paid content creation, and the viability of the news publications for which we worked.
Unlike the buttoned-up consulting types from McKinsey and BCG, or the suited executives from the old guard multinational corporations that roamed the promenades of Davos, their tasseled loafers slipping on the icy paths, the Googlers were the cool bunch. They wore fashionable sneakers, and their chalet was sleek, white, and stark, with giant cubes masquerading as chairs in a space that looked as though it had been repurposed that morning by designers flown in from the Valley. In fact, it may have been, and if so, Google wouldn’t have been alone in such excess. I remember attending a party once in Davos, hosted by Napster founder and former Facebook president Sean Parker, that featured giant taxidermy bears and a musical performance by John Legend.
Back in the Google chalet, Brin and Page projected a youthful earnestness as they explained the company’s involvement in authoritarian China, and insisted they’d never be like Microsoft, which was considered the corporate bully and monopolist of the time. What about the future of news, we wanted to know. After admitting that Page read only free news online whereas Brin often bought the Sunday New York Times in print (“It’s nice!” he said, cheerfully), the duo affirmed exactly what we journalists wanted to hear:
Google, they assured us, would never threaten our livelihoods. Yes, advertisers were indeed migrating en masse from our publications to the Web, where they could target consumers with a level of precision that the print world could barely imagine. But not to worry. Google would generously retool our business model so we, too, could thrive in the new digital world.
I was much younger then, and not yet the (admittedly) cynical business journalist that I have become, and yet I still listened to that happy “future of news” lecture with some skepticism. Whether Google actually intended to develop some brilliant new revenue model or not, what alarmed me was that none of us were asking a far more important question. Sitting toward the back of the room, somewhat conscious of my relatively junior status, I hesitated, waiting until the final moments of the meeting before raising my hand.
“Excuse me,” I said. “We’re talking about all this like journalism is the only thing that matters, but isn’t this really about . . . democracy?” If newspapers and magazines are all driven out of business by Google or companies like it, I asked, how are people going to find out what’s going on?
Larry Page looked at me with an odd expression, as if he was surprised that someone should be asking such a naïve question. “Oh, yes. We’ve got a lot of people thinking about that.”
Not to worry, his tone seemed to say. Google had the engineers working on that “democracy” problem. Next question?
Extract from Don’t Be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech by Rana Foroohar (Allen Lane, £20). Buy a copy here.