REDMOND — Microsoft built its fortune making the tools of technology that billions use every day.
But the company’s president, Brad Smith, has increasing misgivings about how thieves, terrorists and scoundrels have weaponized those tools, and how the industry has failed too often to thwart them.
He chides Facebook for allowing influence campaigns to flourish on the network that helped elect Donald Trump president in 2016. And he argues that social media companies can’t profit from hatemongers posting vile content while brushing off responsibility.
“Digital technology has become both a tool and a weapon, and we need to address that head on,” Smith said in an interview at Microsoft headquarters here. “And part of addressing it head on starts with really understanding the different ways in which it’s either serving humanity or being weaponized.”
Smith lays out his critique in his forthcoming book, “Tools and Weapons: The Promise and The Peril of The Digital Age.” Co-written with Microsoft communications executive Carol Ann Browne, the book examines the missteps tech companies have made and suggests new approaches for the industry as threats to privacy, cybercrime and disinformation mount.
The book, available Tuesday, comes during a tough summer for tech’s titans. Facebook was hit with a $5 billion fine in July for repeatedly deceiving its 2.2 billion users and undermining their privacy choices. The European Union launched an antitrust investigation into whether Amazon is misusing its dual role as both a marketplace for independent sellers and a retailer of its own products. And last week, Google’s YouTube agreed to pay out $170 million to settle allegations that it illegally collected data about children younger than age 13.
But Microsoft — the only tech company still valued over $1 trillion — has recently managed to dodge hefty fines and nasty rhetoric from lawmakers and regulators in the United States. It’s in stark contrast from two decades ago, when Microsoft was tech’s biggest bully and the subject of onerous litigation brought by the U.S. trustbusters and investigations by competition czars around the world.
Since then, he said, Microsoft has matured and internalized lessons that younger tech companies may still need to learn.
Microsoft “was knocked off its perch in part because it had not figured out how to come to terms with the responsibilities it then had,” Smith said. “But it’s also a story of a company that, then, ultimately learned from it and was able to internalize the need for those changes and succeed anew, but with more self-restraint than it would have ever exercised in the 1990s.”
In this new era of tech skepticism, Smith and his boss, chief executive Satya Nadella, have attempted to position Microsoft as a defender of its customers’ privacy and an advocate for government regulation of facial-recognition technology.
“Microsoft has become the model of responsibility among the tech giants,” said Michael Cusumano, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and co-author of “The Business of Platforms: Strategy in the Age of Digital Competition, Innovation, and Power.” “It’s very different than what Microsoft was.”
Even so, Smith admits to recent missteps. Online news site Motherboard reported last month that Microsoft contractors have listened to personal conversations of Skype users conducted through the app’s translation service. Microsoft has said that it may use conversations to improve its service, but it did not make clear that people might eavesdrop to do so.
While the issue was “more nuanced” than it was portrayed, “we all make mistakes,” Smith admitted.