Big Tech’s Big Defector

Nov 26, 2019 by

The New Yorker

Roger McNamee made a fortune as one of Silicon Valley’s earliest champions. Now he’s one of its most fervent critics.


Roger McNamee started his career in 1982, as a twenty-six-year-old analyst at the investment firm T. Rowe Price. The personal-computer revolution was just beginning. He invested in Electronic Arts (now a leading video-game maker) and Sybase (a pioneering database firm), among others, eventually running one of the most successful funds in the industry. In 1991, he partnered with the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins, where he listened to pitches for Netscape and Amazon. He invested in those companies, too, and a few years later he co-founded Silver Lake Partners. The businesses in Silver Lake’s portfolio now produce two hundred and thirty billion dollars in annual revenue and employ three hundred and seventy thousand people. In the early two-thousands, McNamee helped create a private-equity firm, Elevation Partners, which invested two hundred and ten million dollars in Facebook in 2009 and 2010, two years before it went public.

If the founders of Big Tech were a family, McNamee might be its eccentric uncle. A longtime guitarist who still plays some fifty shows a year, he has toured for more than two decades with an evolving cast of venture capitalists, technologists, and career musicians such as Pete Sears, of Jefferson Starship. On tracks like the stoner anthem “It’s 4:20 Somewhere,” by his band Moonalice, McNamee performed under the stage name Chubby Wombat.

McNamee has mentored many of the people who have transformed Silicon Valley. In 2006, when Facebook was a two-year-old company with less than fifty million dollars in annual revenue, McNamee advised Mark Zuckerberg to turn down Yahoo’s offer to buy it for a billion dollars. (It’s now worth more than five hundred billion.) Not long afterward, he encouraged Zuckerberg to hire Sheryl Sandberg. His acquaintances have included Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who was an investor at Silver Lake.

McNamee saw the tech industry as an experiment in creative and profitable problem-solving. He grew unnerved by its ethical failures only in 2012, when Uber came to him for investment capital. He decided that Silicon Valley had changed. “These guys all wanted to be monopolists,” he said recently. “They all want to be billionaires.”

McNamee was convinced that Facebook was different. Then, in February, 2016, shortly after he retired from full-time investing, he noticed posts in his Facebook feed that purported to support Bernie Sanders but struck him as fishy. That spring, the social-media-fuelled vitriol of the Brexit campaign seemed like further proof that Facebook was being exploited to sow division among voters—and that company executives had turned a blind eye. The more McNamee listened to Silicon Valley critics, the more alarmed he became: he learned that Facebook allowed facial-recognition software to identify users without their consent, and let advertisers discriminate against viewers. (Real-estate companies, for example, could exclude people of certain races from seeing their ads.)

Ten days before the Presidential election, McNamee sent an e-mail to Zuckerberg and Sandberg. “I am disappointed. I am embarrassed. I am ashamed,” he wrote.

Recently, Facebook has done some things that are truly horrible and I can no longer excuse its behavior. . . . Facebook is enabling people to do harm. It has the power to stop the harm. What it currently lacks is an incentive to do so.

Within hours, both Zuckerberg and Sandberg sent McNamee cordial replies, assuring him that they were already working to address some of the issues he’d raised, and dispatched a Facebook executive, Dan Rose, to talk to him. Rose told McNamee that Facebook was a platform, not a publisher, and couldn’t control all user behavior. Since leaving the investment world, McNamee had been looking forward to being a full-time musician. But Rose’s dismissiveness rattled him. “They were my friends. I wanted to give them a chance to do the right thing. I wasn’t expecting them to go, ‘Oh, my God, stop everything,’ but I was expecting them to take it seriously,” he said. “It was obvious they thought it was a P.R. problem, not a business problem, and they thought the P.R. problem was me.” McNamee hasn’t spoken to Sandberg or Zuckerberg since. (Both declined to comment for this article.) He now refers to Zuckerberg as an “authoritarian.”

As Russian election interference became increasingly apparent, McNamee published a series of op-eds—in the Guardian, USA Today, Time, and elsewhere—arguing that the social-media business model thrived on divisive rhetoric: the more extreme the content, the more users shared it; the more the algorithms amplified it, the more ad revenue was generated. McNamee also scheduled meetings with policymakers, investors, and Silicon Valley executives. He and Nancy Pelosi, now the Speaker of the House, had been introduced some twenty years earlier, by the Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, and McNamee set out to expand his network of Washington contacts. As lawmakers prepared for hearings about Russian meddling, in the fall of 2017, McNamee put together a curriculum for them, which he jokingly called “Internet Platforms 101.” Adam Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, had been focussed on foreign manipulation of social media, but, in a meeting, McNamee urged him to consider a broader problem—how the platforms were sowing discord among Americans. “Roger was really ahead of the curve,” Schiff said. “Time has borne out his warnings.”

McNamee’s zeal for diagnosing problems soon evolved into a mission to devise a solution. He argued that piecemeal regulation would never get to the root of the problem: mining users’ private data for profit. In February, 2019, McNamee published “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe”—part memoir, part manifesto. He then embarked on a book tour that has turned into an ongoing public-shaming campaign. He has taken his message to bookstores, breweries, high-school gymnasiums, and college campuses. He estimates that he’s made his pitch to more than three hundred audiences in the past year. “I have a hippie value system,” McNamee told me recently. “I’m always going to speak truth to power.”

McNamee is not the first Silicon Valley insider to become a critic of the tech industry, but he may be the most strenuous. Kara Swisher, a co-founder of the tech-news site Recode and a New York Times columnist, recalled, “Whenever I would say negative things about Facebook, I’d always get a text or a call from Roger.” Now, she continued, McNamee is “sort of shunned” in the Valley. Last winter, Bill Gates told Forbes, “I think what Roger has said is completely unfair and kind of outrageous. They’re blaming Mark for everything.” Swisher thinks the Valley has been eager to portray McNamee as “off the rails.” As she sees it, “He’s a little wacky, but he’s not crazy. The more they make fun of him, the more I’m, like, He’s one-hundred-per-cent right.”

Among some skeptics, however, the profit McNamee has accrued from the technology that he now urges us to renounce makes him difficult to trust. One view of McNamee is that he has the gravitas of a man willing to admit that he was wrong. (“Shame on me,” he told one interviewer.) Another is that, having successfully ridden one wave, he is trying to ride another.

Earlier this year, I met McNamee for breakfast in Baltimore, where he was speaking to the staff of his former employer T. Rowe Price. In 2011, the company had invested a hundred and ninety million dollars in Facebook. “A lot of people are mad at me,” McNamee said, in a hotel on the waterfront. On his speaking circuit, he wears baggy suits, clunky black shoes, and round glasses. Before his book tour, he trimmed his shoulder-length curls. At the hotel’s restaurant, a hostess greeted us and politely asked for McNamee’s name.

“Why do you need my name?” he barked. The woman stuttered a reply, but McNamee cut her off. “Can we just get a table?”

He turned to me with a smirk. “Privacy!” he stage-whispered.

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“I shouldn’t tell you this, but we offer the flu shot.”Cartoon by Trevor Spaulding

McNamee is not a kombucha kind of Californian. He ordered a Diet Coke with his eggs and toast. As we ate, conversation veered from the civil-rights movement, which he says inspired his tech activism, to the number of Grateful Dead shows he attended before Jerry Garcia died (two hundred). Describing the arc of his career, McNamee attributed his business success mainly to “dumb luck.” Talk turned to Bono, whom he met through Sandberg in 2001, and with whom he co-founded Elevation Partners. “Bono said to me, more than once, ‘Your superpower is you’re not motivated by money,’ ” McNamee told me. “That’s the only reason I could do this.”

McNamee rattles off a frighteningly long list of things that he believes have been “Zucked”: “your vote,” “your rights,” “your privacy,” “your life,” “everything.” So far, the public is less alarmed. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that around half of Americans think that the tech industry is having a positive impact on society. (However, this view is on the decline: in 2015, seven in ten thought so.) Earlier this year, Google and Amazon came in second and third in a survey of millennials’ favorite brands. In general, people are more concerned about the behavior of banks and pharmaceutical companies, and most Americans have yet to meaningfully change their habits as tech consumers. McNamee’s message resonates most with a few relatively insular groups of worried citizens: parents who monitor screen time, socialists who decry West Coast inequality, academics who study algorithmic bias.

At this year’s Truth About Tech conference, held in April, at Georgetown University, I found McNamee slumped in a chair clutching a Diet Coke. “This is my fourteenth city in fourteen days,” he said. Jim Steyer—brother of Tom Steyer, the hedge-fund billionaire turned environmentalist and Presidential candidate—arrived and embraced McNamee. Steyer, who has a blond mane and a California vibe, heads the kids-and-tech advocacy group Common Sense Media. (In one of its recent P.S.A.s, featuring the Muppets, Cookie Monster eats a smartphone.) “What Roger is doing is so inspiring!” Steyer told me.

After listening to a roster of high-powered speakers—the Massachusetts senator Ed Markey, commissioners of the F.T.C. and the F.C.C., and the attorney general of Washington, D.C.—McNamee descended to a basement room where Peter Lord, a vice-president at the software company Oracle, which is worth nearly two hundred billion dollars, had the innards of an Android phone splayed out on a table. McNamee told me, theatrically, “You can stay, but this is off the record.” Lord regarded me sternly. (I later found most of what Lord discussed in a YouTube video of a talk he gave last year.) A tangle of wires led from the disassembled Android to a laptop, where data from the phone’s sensors appeared, updating each second. This amount of data, Lord explained, gesturing at the screen clogged with numbers, was routinely collected on each of Google Android’s approximately two billion users.

A technician picked up a small black component and waved it in the air. The numbers on the screen danced accordingly: this was the phone’s barometric-pressure sensor, sensitive to changes in elevation. Androids are commonly equipped with a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and a magnetic-field detector; their sensors can calculate heart rate and count steps. This constant flow of information allows your phone to track whether you’re sleeping or awake; whether you’re driving, walking, jogging, or biking; whether you’re in the Starbucks on the ground floor or the lawyer’s office on the tenth. Lord delivered a ted-like slide presentation, which included creepy quotes from Eric Schmidt, the former Google chairman: “We can more or less guess what you’re thinking about.”

For Oracle, the privacy wars have provided an opportunity to stand up for users’ interests while also advancing its own—in particular, by dramatizing the vulnerabilities of its rivals. If Google is broken up, Oracle is better positioned to thrive. During the past two years, Oracle has given the same presentation that McNamee and I received to lawmakers and regulators, who, Lord said, were “clearly frustrated” by what they learned.

All modern smartphones—including iPhones—contain hardware that monitors users’ activities and locations. But McNamee and many experts argue that Androids are unique in the extent to which they collect and retain user information. Much of this data is collected even when a phone is off-line, then uploaded to Google’s servers and integrated into an archive that includes your search, Gmail, and Google Docs history. The Android platform finds information in your apps and your online activity, and often makes this information available to third parties, like advertisers. A user agreement also gives Google Assistant the right to record conversations that occur within earshot of the device’s microphone.

Using digital profiles to predict and influence our behavior is at the heart of Google’s and Facebook’s business models. In “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” published earlier this year, Shoshana Zuboff, an emerita professor at Harvard Business School, warns of a “rogue mutation of capitalism,” in which tech behemoths surveil humans, and eventually control them. McNamee speaks often about surveillance capitalism, and credits Zuboff with informing his views and with bringing academic clout to the cause of Silicon Valley reformists. Like Zuboff, he uses phrases such as “behavioral modification,” and he speaks of Google Street View and the Stasi in the same breath. McNamee was alarmed by reports, in early November, of Google’s partnership with Ascension, a nonprofit health system that has access to millions of patient profiles—a development that, he said, “should trouble everybody.”

It’s notable that the dust jacket of McNamee’s book attacking Facebook includes blurbs from three of the Valley’s biggest names: Marc Benioff (a co-C.E.O. of Salesforce), Bill Joy (a co-founder of Sun Microsystems), and Vint Cerf (currently Google’s “chief Internet evangelist,” who is often referred to as the “father of the Internet”). Rivalries in Silicon Valley once revolved around technological prowess, consumer allegiance, and profitability. Now competition is for moral superiority, a fight that McNamee has found himself in the middle of.

McNamee sees his defection from Silicon Valley as nothing more than a return to his roots—an identity that mixes camp and sincerity. When I asked him to say more about his value system, he referred me to “Get Together,” a nineteen-sixties Youngbloods anthem. (“Come on people, now / smile on your brother / Everybody get together, / try to love one another right now.”) McNamee’s father, Daniel, was an investment banker and the president of the Albany chapter of the Urban League, a civil-rights organization. His mother, Barbara, was an active feminist in the sixties. At the age of twelve, McNamee became an anti-Vietnam War activist, volunteering for Eugene McCarthy’s Presidential campaign; in high school, he backed George McGovern. In protest of the Iraq War and other policies during the George W. Bush Administration, he refused to cut his hair. When President Obama was inaugurated, he celebrated with a trip to the barber.

Travelling around the country, McNamee carries a guitar case and a knapsack embroidered with the word “Zucked.” (He handed out custom-made “Zucked” M&M’s during his tour until they ran out.) He used to pack as many as seven devices while on the road; now he carries just one iPhone, clipped to his belt. On his left wrist, he wears several leather bracelets: one for Black Lives Matter, another commemorating the March for Our Lives. On most days, he dons a purple undershirt—“the color of inclusion,” he told me.

Silicon Valley companies have always talked about building a better world. In “From Counterculture to Cyberculture” (2006), Fred Turner, a professor of communications at Stanford, charted the history of “collaboration between San Francisco flower power and the emerging technological hub of Silicon Valley.” McNamee hopes that this utopian fusion of culture and technology can be harnessed again, this time for reform.

After the Truth About Tech conference ended, McNamee gave a happy-hour presentation to employees of a Baltimore-based investment-management firm. “Give up your Android phone,” he told an audience of around a hundred fund managers wearing business casual and drinking craft beer. “This is our agency. This is our free will.” He joked, “When do you check your phone in the morning? Is it before you pee or while you’re peeing? Because that’s pretty much the range!”

McNamee offers himself as a case study in how to be Google-free. He uses DuckDuckGo, a search engine that presents itself as a privacy-oriented alternative to Google, and he has largely renounced Gmail, Maps, Docs, and the company’s other apps. In two months, he slipped up only once, when he watched a music video on YouTube, which Google owns. He argues that Facebook should be used for staying in touch with friends and family, rather than for political debates, which the platform alchemizes into screaming matches. “Outrage and fear are what drive their business model, so don’t engage with it,” he told me. “I was as addicted as anybody, but we have the power to withdraw our attention.”


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