Oligarchs of the Internet

Steve Jobs had no use for philanthropy.  There is no record of him having made any charitable donations during his lifetime, despite his immense wealth.  Jobs never signed Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s ‘billionaire’s pledge,’ to give at least half of his fortune to charity, as have more than 100 other exceptionally wealthy individuals from around the globe.  He also condoned sweatshop conditions—for children—at Apple manufacturing sites in China.  Apple employs about 700,000 people via subcontractors, according to The New York Times, but almost none of them work in the U.S.  Steve had no problem with any of this.

(His wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, has a better record than Steve when it comes to giving back, having emerged from his shadow after his death to contribute actively to a number of worthy causes, especially education.)

Mark Zuckerberg did sign Buffet’s pledge, but it’s also the case that last year Facebook spent nearly $2.5 million lobbying in Washington against tougher privacy laws, and for immigration reform that would allow the employment of immigrant IT workers at lower wages.  Like Jobs, Zuckerberg is taxes-averse, and Facebook actually succeeded in paying no taxes last year, despite profits of more than a billion dollars.

How about Google, the ‘Don’t be evil’ corporation?  Sergey Brin and his wife have been generous, particularly in giving to the battle against Parkinson’s disease (Brin carries the flawed Parkinson’s gene), but a recent article in Wired magazine strikes a disturbing note. The piece recounts how, in 2009, a low-life drug dealer named David Whitaker was looking for leniency from the US Food and Drug Administration after being busted for selling steroids and human growth hormones online from a base of operations in Mexico.  He told the FDA that he had marketed his sometimes-phony drugs into the US using Google Adwords, something supposedly expressly prohibited by Google’s policies.  All he had needed to do, it seems, was work directly with Google reps to tailor his website into something more ‘educational’—no ‘buy now’ buttons, no photos of drugs, that sort of thing—and, even though he made no attempt to conceal the true nature of his business, Google was happy to help.  The Feds were initially skeptical, but set up Whitaker in a new, bogus operation as a sting, to test whether he was telling the truth.  This time his venture would include sales of RU-486, the abortion pill, which is normally taken only under the supervision of a medical doctor.

A few months later it was abundantly clear that Whitaker was indeed being truthful.  The feds took legal action, and in 2011, Google settled out of court, paying a $500 million fine.  A brief statement from the company admitted that, “With hindsight, we shouldn’t have allowed these ads on Google in the first place.”

Jay Gould
Jay Gould

Great success brings great size, and with size comes a kind of corporate momentum that inevitably stresses sales over principles.  It’s not an across-the-board phenomenon—the post-CEO Bill Gates being the obvious exception—but it’s clear that many of today’s internet lords are not necessarily cut from cloth any different than were the notorious robber barons of the past, men like Jay Gould, who in 1869 attempted to corner the market in gold, hoping that the increase in price would increase the price of wheat, such that western farmers would then sell, causing a great amount of shipping of bread stuffs eastward, increasing freight business for the Erie railroad, which Gould was trying to take control of.  The ploy may have been complex, even ingenious, but it also brought Gould infamy, eventually forcing him out of an ownership position with the Railroad.

Today’s web oligarchs enjoy much higher approval ratings than did their 19th century corporate predecessors.  It’s been reported that some members of Occupy Wall Street stopped to mourn at the impromptu memorial site set up outside the Apple Store in Manhattan, following Steve Jobs’ death.

We serfs of the imperial internet realm can do better.  Great product does not always mean a worthy producer, and the ends never justify the means.  We can demand more from the web-based corporations and corporation heads who profit so handsomely from our purchases and our use of their services.  We can, at the very least, expect generosity.




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