To construct its “Evil List,” Slate asked hundreds of academics, tech journalists, advocates, and policymakers to, in the words of the ballot, “rank the 10 companies that you believe should trouble society the most.” In the end, about forty people, including Charles Duan of the R Street Institute, Brian Krebs of the publication Krebs on Security, and Georgetown Law professor Julie Cohen, responded on the record. Some of the companies they chose are household names, and others may be part of your life without you knowing. One (“The Grid”) is an invisible companion to much of modern living, and the list argues that it is worryingly vulnerable.
Slate’s DC-based technology editor, Jonathan L. Fischer, along with tech reporter Aaron Mak, began working in earnest on the list last summer, sending ballots via a Google Form (a circumstance that “several respondents remarked upon,” Fischer says) to an initial group, then asking participants for others they recommend take part. The package, which published Wednesday and was the publication’s most-read story all day, a spokesperson says, also includes some sidebars: Cory Doctorow slamming the “cult of Apple,” Siva Vaidhyanathan making a case that ExxonMobil is far more dangerous than Facebook or Google, and Slate writers Ashley Feinberg and Jordan Weissmann debating whether Facebook or Amazon is worse for society. Washingtonian caught up with Fischer, who was in New York City for the day, and asked him how one constructs a list of…evil.
Washingtonian: How did you decide on this format?
Jonathan Fischer: Originally, we wondered if we should just have a single writer make the case. The idea was even though it’s clearly an apples to oranges question, it was to make the case for a certain set of moral and ethical criteria when thinking through the techlash, and also to think through whether the backlash against the big tech companies had gotten it right. At some point I thought of of the Pazz and Jop poll. I enjoy lists, and I think an experts poll or a critics poll can be revealing and a great way to kickstart debate. So the idea was, What if we did a reverse critics poll, a poll of the worst?
Did you end up with any ties or other areas where you could insert some editorial influence?
If I had run a Top 40 [there are 30 entities on the list], there would have been. I really wanted to let the chips fall where they may. The one choice I did make was we ran the list in reverse order.
Do you know how your participants defined evil? I imagine some people would say that rather than being evil, many of these concerns simply behave rationally in the marketplace.
We really left that vague. We wanted this to be a list that not only made a case for a certain company but would also hopefully surface some interesting criteria. Some people may see actual harm; some people might see potential harm. It could be that people are overweighting their area of expertise. But the idea was to treat it as an experiment and the beginning of a conversation.
I gotta tell you, the grid thing really freaked me out. I’m now more worried about that than Amazon.
That’s one area where I did exercise a little bit of control. A few people had voted for the same utility, some people voted for a different utility, and one person wrote “The Grid.” I thought that was one area where it was fine to consolidate.
I’m talking to you on an Apple product and typing up our conversation in a Google Doc. We’re in this weird moment where lots of us agree these companies’ behavior is troubling, but lots of us use their products anyway. Why do you think we don’t walk it like we talk it?
It’s pretty hard to opt out of these companies even if you want to. AWS [Amazon Web Services] powers a huge chunk of the web. I think these companies have become pervasive before laws and society in general were able to take their temperature. But do love tech, and I rely upon these devices. I’m not a privacy expert, but having this job has made me more skeptical of all the devices that I use. I edited a piece years ago about the lack of two-factor authentication and other security measures in Venmo, and I stayed away from Venmo for years because of the bad taste it left in my mouth. I do use Venmo now; I think in general the industry is better about these things. I use a lot of these products and I am just constantly reminded about the bargain that that sometimes entails.
Were you aware of any concern on Slate’s business side over this list? For advertisers, or over whether Slate’s owner, Graham Holdings, has interests in any of these companies?
No. This was a product, editorially, there was a lot of excitement about it all the way to the top. It’s A1 on our homepage right now. I hope it’s reflective of the skepticism but also the nuance we bring to the topic. The whole thing behind this is we were trying to rethink the conventional wisdom.
Which tech company do you think is the most evil?
I didn’t vote in this. That was on purpose; I intentionally wanted to not have a horse in the race.
What if I sent you a ballot?
I think like all the respondents I’d think about it awhile.
Okay, fine, Jon. Governments are pushing back a bit against some of these companies. Do you think they’re getting the fixes right?
I think that in general a lot of these companies have grown really fast, before we were able to figure out how they should be regulated or what we could do about some of their externalities. Now there are these major new laws in Europe, in California. I think we’re closer to figuring it out than a few years ago but I don’t think it’s a straightforward process like Europe’s data law or breaking up Facebook, which is not going to happen. You know, California’s [new gig-economy bill] was a reaction to Uber, things like that. Now there’s all these consequences like freelance writers being told they have to work less. So it’s a process. I also think there’s always going to be a gulf between what opinion journalists and academics and policymakers are thinking and what people who like these products want. I do think the era in which Silicon Valley is sort of uncritically praised as this font of innovation and good seems to have ended.
Have you heard from any companies angry about the list?
No. I haven’t, but, you know, it’s only been nine hours.
Are you at all concerned that a tiny steel ball might float into your house tonight and vaporize you?
Oh yeah, someone will send a drone. That’s why I left town, obviously.
Disclosure: Fischer and I worked together a decade ago. This conversation has been edited and condensed.