BIG TECH: The macro-scams of Fyre and Theranos & the micro-scams of Google and Facebook

Spoiler alert: Fyre Festival ended up being a securities fraud that cost investors $27 million dollars, left hundreds of workers unpaid and emotionally ravaged, and negligently put attendees in dangerous conditions. Even Blink-182 cancelled their performance! Another spoiler: Theranos ended up being a securities fraud costing investors (including Betsy DeVos!) $700 million, leaving hundreds of workers unpaid and pushing at least one to suicide, negligently putting users of the product in dangerous medical circumstances. In both cases, the founders were young and narcissistic, optimizing the story-telling about their company over delivering on the promised expectations. Billy McFarland used Instagram supermodels to sell a false vision. Elizabeth Holmes leveraged the Steve Jobs black turtleneck and VC group think to do the same.

This stuff is so easy in retrospect -- to point fingers and throw the stone. Having spent a lot of time in the early stage ecosystem, we can tell you that all founders have these devils inside them. These are the devils that let you take the risk, tell the story and defend your tribe (e.g., see Elon Musk). The issue is that these particular people could not and did not execute -- and any reasonable person in their situation would know enough to stop marketing and selling lies. We can look at crypto ICOs to date and say the same thing. Surely the people who raised over $30 billion globally, and burned nearly all of it, sold us a falsehood. Some -- like John McAfee or Brock Pierce -- had to know what was up. Or did they, perhaps believing in a zeitgeist change tilting the axis of human industry? 

The issue is asymmetric information and intent to profit from that asymmetry. When someone sells us a broken car claiming it works great, they are selling a "lemon" -- something the US protects against with "lemon laws" that remedy damages from relying on false claims. Let's shift from these obvious macro lemons, to the invisible micro lemons sold by Facebook and Google. It was revealed that Facebook was -- in the worst case -- paying 13+ year olds $20 per month to install a research app that scraped all their activity (from messages to emails to  web) and provided root permissions to the phone, misusing Apple-issued enterprise certificates. Facebook should not have been able to create these apps for anyone other than its employees on internal apps (e.g., bug testing new versions). But it did, and got its access revoked by Apple immediately.

Google did a version of this too, exchanging gift cards for spying on web traffic. As yet another example, Google's employees refused to help the company build a war-drone AI for the US Department of Defense. So instead, Google outsourced the work to Figure Eight (a human-in-the-machine company), hiring gig economy workers for as little as $1 per hour for micro-tasks like identifying images (teaching drones to see). These workers had no clue what they were doing -- and we imagine that some would exhibit the same ethical concerns that Google employees did in refusing the work. In all these tech company examples, the lemon is the un-revealed total cost. Compared to Fyre and Theranos, where we pay billions, and get nothing in return, here we are given $1 an hour or $20 per month (i.e., nothing), but we lose our privacy, agency and humanity (i.e., everything). 


Source: Wired (Project Maven), The Intercept (Google project maven), Gizmodo (Google micro-tasks), TechCrunch (Facebook, Google, Apple), Wikipedia (FyreTheranosLemon Law)