Google and the Liberal Man’s Burden

As Silicon Valley is learning, "pinkwashing" is the perfect tool for political misdirection.

Tinkerers and technopreneurs are no better suited to solve social and political crises than hacks and bureaucrats, says George Packer in the May issue of the New Yorker. A child of Palo Alto who knows What It Used To Be Like, Packer exposes Silicon Valley exceptionalism for its bafoonish self-aggrandizement. In one delicious moment, he muses “that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.”

Packer notes with caution that “the phrase ‘change the world’ is tossed around Silicon Valley conversations and business plans as freely as talk of ‘early-stage investing’ and ‘beta tests.’” He also casts doubt on the good of, a PAC conceived by Northern California royalty including Mark Zuckerberg. The project advocates for more H1B visas in the immigration reform package, and is widely seen as Silicon Valley’s first significant foray into the messy, “data-poor” world of politics. In Packer’s estimation, the PAC is evidence that tech companies are not idealistic bands of libertarian boy-wonders; it is an industry like any other, and will employ legions of lobbyists to get what it wants in Washington, even if that means venturing off the company campus.

Packer doesn’t address how far tech companies are willing to go. If Zuckerberg is looking to dip into domestic affairs, other industry leaders have set their sights on the international arena. Silicon Valley could have substantial weight in Washington, but Google wants to take it global.

In 2012, Google announced the launch of “Legalize Love,” a campaign which conflates public policy with HR in its aim to “decriminalize homosexuality and eliminate homophobia around the world.” The project was initially misreported as an attempt to legalize gay marriage in countries where Google does business. “Legalize Love,” does not technically have concrete legal goals. That said, a Google spokesman told reporters that the campaign would combat homophobia in countries with homophobic laws, so that employees could “have the same experience outside the office as they do in the office,” specifically citing Singapore and Poland.

This hardly seems the purview of Google, essentially a retail company that sells email and search. Ending anti-gay and anti-trans bigotry is a laudable goal, but it doesn’t take a cynic to see that gay rights are a means to other ends. Not only is Google shrouding corporate expansion in the rainbow flag, but it is meddling in the domestic policies of sovereign nations. Appropriating gay rights to earn cultural capital is not new, but it is usually associated with states, not companies.

Pinkwashing, as the practice is known, has become the perfect tool for political misdirection: it is hugely popular with progressives and easy to accommodate, since the pillars of the mainstream gay rights movement pose no threat to the economic, military, or political status quo. Supporting gay marriage or the integration of gays in the military is no longer controversial in multinational boardrooms, and can put a positive spin on the otherwise banal corporate drive for bigger markets and more power.

Yasmin Nair has written that gay marriage is fundamentally a conservative cause, a point driven home by recent revelations that even the GOP is getting on board. As gay marriage increasingly becomes a shibboleth for liberal respectability, it forms the perfect vanguard for grabbing power. Gay rights have been appropriated into an updated version of the white man’s burden, which manufactured moral justifications for colonialism in the twentieth century.

Israel has been taken to task for pinkwashing, and it provides a quintessential example. In 2005 the Israeli government launched an international public relations campaign to improve the country’s image by promoting Tel Aviv as an LGBT tourist destination, literally called “Brand Israel.” So-called “pink dollars” have flooded the country since then. As Sarah Shulman writes, Israeli pinkwashing is “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.” The history of colonialism and the example of Israel should make us extremely skeptical of the bar code on the rainbow flag.

“Legalize Love” carries that same spirit of the liberal man’s burden. On the Singaporean campaign, Google spokesman Mark Palmer-Edgecombe hinted at the larger impetus for the project, telling reporters that “Singapore wants to be a global financial center and world leader and we can push them on the fact that being a global center and a world leader means you have to treat all people the same, irrespective of their sexual orientation.”

The Google statements assume that the company can and should be able to negotiate with states. But Google is not accountable to any public, it can’t be voted out of office or stripped of power. In one fell swoop Palmer-Edgecombe elides all republican principles, and in so doing uses gay rights as a club with which to threaten Singapore. At the launch event, an Ernst & Young representative cooed that “governments can exert diplomatic power, NGOs can martial facts and arguments — but corporations martial economic power.” Of course, Google is attempting to do all three.

“Legalize Love” isn’t the only site of Google’s mission creep. Google Ideas, a “think/do tank,” holds “summits” on pressing international issues to “accelerate project development with strategic partners,” and “research to provide fresh insights and develop interactive data visualizations to bring information to life.” But Google is not a think tank, it is a manufacturer of consumer products, and however well-intentioned these projects to map “illicit networks” and “empower citizens in fragile states” may be, they will be employed to serve company interests.

At face value these efforts at Google could appear to be paper tigers, small offshoots of a gigantic company whose reach runs the entire tech gambit. But they come at a moment of extreme skepticism about the value of government. International unrest is consistently attributed to failure of governance not just in practice but in theory, rather than the deregulated capitalism and austerity measures that got us into this mess in the first place.

Silicon Valley’s libertarian spirit is not merely a hacker’s individualism, but a simple preservation of the industry’s financial interest. In this light, it’s clear that the desire to create “scalable” technologies with global reach is little more than the latest flavor of any industry’s desire to make more money by expanding into more markets. They begin to sound indistinguishable from free market cowboys, skeptical of governments and assured that their contained systems will necessarily generate the innovations we need to solve problems. The difference is that in this iteration, the ideology places its faith in Farmville, rather than free markets.

A series of recent articles by the omniscient gentlemen of the Atlantic take the zeitgeist to its techno-libertarian extreme, arguing that in the age of Google, governments should act more like businesses, and that we may not need governments at all. Eric Schnuerer writes of a world where government literally is a product you can buy, an eventuality he sees foretold in the increase in private security forces and flight from public schools. In other words, “‘Government’ is, everywhere, an industry in serious trouble,” and his remedy is to “resize,” “redesign” the “products,” and “compete effectively against new competitors and in whole new markets.” What Schnuerer doesn’t seem to realize is that government institutions differ from business by design, not by fault.

This misconception is at the heart of Silicon Valley’s approach to politics, both at home and abroad. In Packer’s words, technology “has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value.” As evidenced in and Legalize Love, the tech giants don’t distinguish between technical and social problems. In the process, these companies seem to believe that good intentions alone justify eliding democratic principles.