Was this the year tech giants grew a conscience?

Photo credit: Mark Zuckerberg's FB page:  https://www.facebook.com/zuck

Photo credit: Mark Zuckerberg's FB page: https://www.facebook.com/zuck

2017 marks the year that tech giants such as Apple and Facebook began to rethink their responsibilities about how their technology impacts people and society.

Historically, “the online ethos has been that platforms aren’t really responsible for how people use them. It might as well be the slogan of Silicon Valley: We just make the tech, how people use it is another story,” reports the New York Times.

But, as The Times argues, “in 2017, that changed. At first grudgingly and then with apparent enthusiasm, platform companies like Facebook began accepting some responsibility for how they are affecting the real world. They did not go as far as some critics would have liked – but in many significant ways they offered a shift in tone and tactics that suggested they were rethinking their positions.”

This evolution occurred even as the federal government lessened its influence over massive technology and social media companies. On Dec. 14, the Federal Communications Commission voted to dismantle so-called net neutrality regulations, which were passed by the Obama administration and barred broadband providers from blocking websites or charging for higher-quality service and regulated high-speed Internet like a utility.

Even in the new era of deregulation, however, major online players have softened their approach to how they deliver information.

On Friday, Dec. 15, CNBC reported that Facebook executives were acknowledging a raft of university studies that documented detrimental effects of the social media giant on users’ moods. Basically, studies at University of Michigan, Carnegie Mellon University, UC San Diego, Yale and Cornell documented a variety of negative effects on the mental health of Facebook users for certain use cases of the social network.

While there may have been no way for the early players in the Internet revolution to foresee the effects it would have and ignore any social responsibility for their technology, it is important to point out that just a year ago, many social media companies were still unprepared for – and often ignoring – the serious ethical questions that arise when you affect millions of users each day.

For instance, when Mark Zuckerberg was asked about his site’s role in the 2016 election, he responded: “It was a ‘pretty crazy idea that misinformation on Facebook had ‘influenced the election in any way,’” reported the New York Times. “Now that tone is gone. Mr. Zuckerberg has apologized for his glibness. And during Facebook’s last earnings report to investors, he put the company’s social mission at the top of his agenda. ‘Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits,’ he said.”

But it wasn't just social media companies. Other tech giants began to acknowledge their social responsibilities this year, as well. For instance, Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, said they had a “moral responsibility” to attempt to heal the nation’s social and economic fissures. Another example is how Facebook has been testing new ways to make its News Feed less prone to misinformation and for promoting what the company calls ‘meaningful’ social connections.

While 2017 may have been a year of reflection for some tech companies, it was also the year that they were able to gain an even greater foothold into our private lives: Amazon’s Key service now allows its delivery drivers to let themselves into our homes; Apple expands the use of facial recognition to unlock our devices; and Alexa and Google Assistant are always on, listening to us and gathering personal data. (Read more about it here: The A.I. you choose might be with you for life.) So, the big question is, since they control so much of our information and personal interactions,

What role will these tech giants play as they begin to accept some responsibility for how their platforms impact people and society?