Big Tech: Hate Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google? Get in Line

Google's Loon balloon is designed to bring internet service to remote places. Google

All of the sudden our tech giants find themselves in a PR pickle: They are posting record earnings and seem unstoppable in business, but they desperately need to convince the public they're not scarier than a pack of velociraptors on meth.

Even people you'd expect to be all rah-rah about Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft—five of the most valuable companies on Earth—are turning cold. Roger McNamee, a big early investor in Facebook, recently told Techonomy, "Facebook has the largest margins of any company of similar size in the American economy. They're functioning like a drug company without doing clinical trials." Adds Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, "They've grown so quickly—I'm not sure they've fully realized the implications of all their power." Warner is the guy dragging executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter to the Capitol to answer for the way Russia used their platforms to influence the presidential election.

What can the tech giants do to improve their image? Ro Khanna, the Democratic representative from Silicon Valley, offered a suggestion in a recently published op-ed in The Washington Post. Khanna noted that the tech giants have the resources and innovation to do some serious societal good—if only they would worry less about quarterly results and besting each other. "More than stock prices or product launches, Silicon Valley's legacy will be defined by whether tech leaders step up to contribute to the larger American experiment," Khanna wrote.

Alphabet recently showed a tentative example of how these companies might win us over. Its research lab X (formerly Google X) has been working on something called Project Loon as a way to bring internet service—and, by the way, Google products—to remote places like the Mongolian steppes. (Isn't it amazing that the descendants of Genghis Khan have survived so long without Google Maps?) Loon balloons, loaded with communications equipment, are designed to rise 65,000 feet over an internet-starved land and act as floating cell towers for the devices below.

After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Alphabet started talking to the island's officials about using Loon for emergency connectivity. Great idea—though not beautifully executed. It took a month for a Loon balloon to get over the island, and a month is like 10,000 years in smartphone downtime. On October 20, Loon was in place and powered up, but the balloons might not stay where they're needed. "This is the first time we have used our new machine-learning-powered algorithms to keep balloons clustered over Puerto Rico, so we're still learning how best to do this," X reported in a blog post. Which means if you're on Slack in San Juan, you might lose the signal if the wind picks up.

Alphabet clearly has cool stuff that could help the world in ways governments cannot. If it were to, say, leap into every disaster to help with its Loons or other inventions, we'd start cutting Alphabet a few breaks on things like privacy and election-swinging.

Amazon has a brilliant opportunity to do something that has stumped government: Pump new life into an old cities like Detroit and St. Louis. Earlier this year, Amazon requested bids for the company's new second headquarters—which will bring with it 50,000 high-paying jobs. More than 200 cities put in bids for Amazon HQ2 before the deadline in October. Amazon will make a decision in 2018. The nation really needs the company to make a social-good choice by injecting itself into a region starving for jobs. Amazon's impact could be like when the Clinton Foundation moved into New York City's Harlem in 2001, giving a hard push to a flywheel of renewal.

The decision, though, could wind up with Amazon looking even more viciously competitive. Most analysts believe it will make an entirely self-interested choice by going with an already vibrant, talent-rich city like Denver or Boston. And Amazon threatens to suck revenue out of even the downtrodden cities bidding for HQ2. The company made it clear it wanted over-the-top incentives, and bidders obliged. Newark, New Jersey, offered $7 billion in tax breaks. Maryland and Philadelphia also offered breaks in the billions. Stonecrest, Georgia, said it would go so far as to change the town name to Amazon. This is a company with a market cap of $464 billion. It brought in nearly $44 billion in revenue this past quarter. It needs tax breaks and incentives about as much as you need to steal a quarter from your grandmother.

The other tech giants are mostly digging themselves deeper into their PR pits of despair. Facebook built a platform that Russians and white supremacists can use to wield enormous influence on society. We need Facebook to boldly step up and own that, then show us it's doing everything it can to be open and responsible about its power. About the only thing that unites Republicans and Democrats right now is the push to force companies like Facebook to disclose who paid for political ads on Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg's company is fighting it, spending $2.85 million in the third quarter lobbying against new regulations, up 41 percent compared with the same time last year. Why the big push? Because such laws could make Facebook turn away advertising, slightly denting those enormous margins investor McNamee referred to. So much for social good.

Microsoft and Apple don't look much better. Microsoft in October released a corporate social responsibility report noting that the company tries to use sustainable energy and makes its software accessible to people with disabilities. But there's not much in it that is going to capture the public's imagination. At the same time, CEO Satya Nadella made $20 million in cash and stock the past year, in large part because he drove what he calls a "growth mindset" through the company's culture. He didn't get paid $20 million to improve society.

How about Apple? iPhone X: $999. 'Nuff said.

Congressional candidate Rohit "Ro" Khanna speaks during a Bloomberg West Television interview in San Francisco on July 2, 2014. Khanna, a Democrat, is running against incumbent Congressman Mike Honda for California's 17th District, which includes much of Silicon Valley. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty

Khanna wants the tech giants to see this moment as an opportunity—"a chance to respond to the challenges facing our country," he wrote. "The hope is that they will answer the nation's call to advance the common good, from expanding job opportunity to communities across the country to ensuring that online platforms do not contribute to polarization or misinformation."

Khanna might be a little sanguine. In his new book The Four, serial entrepreneur and New York University professor Scott Galloway writes about Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. Near the end, he writes, "What's the endgame for this, the greatest concentration of human and financial capital ever assembled? What is their mission? Cure cancer? Eliminate poverty? Explore the universe?"

Galloway concludes, "No, their goal: to sell another fucking Nissan."