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Twenty times we got a good look at Silicon Valley’s dark side

How green was my valley? Not very. A timeline of tech world malfeasance.

Twenty times we got a good look at Silicon Valley’s dark side
William Shockley [Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images]

Companies in Silicon Valley have pioneered personal computers, smartphones, biotech, and more. But perhaps the greatest creation of technology industry located between in the Santa Clara Valley between San Francisco and San Jose is its image as the engine of progress for both the United States and the world. The Valley’s denizens started to cultivate this perception even before the transistor and integrated circuit gave birth to the semiconductor industry in the 1950s and 1960s. But for almost as long as Silicon Valley has been an idea, there’s been evidence of the kind of bad ideas, bad faith, and rapacious greed more associated with much of the rest of the business world. With the confluence of recent events shining a harsher light on Silicon Valley and its influence on society at large, consider just 20 times(!) when news broke that the ideals Silicon Valley likes to promote about itself may be built on sand.

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1. May 1963

William Shockley, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who co-created the transistor—the building block that put the silicon in Silicon Valley—gives a speech in which he reveals that he’s a eugenicist. His peers condemn his unscientific racial theories, but his views are a harbinger for the current gulf between Silicon Valley’s meritocratic rhetoric and its not-so-diverse reality.

[Photo: Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images]

2. June 1975

NBC News airs a series detailing how the Pentagon has used Arpanet, its new computer network (and internet forerunner), to spy on antiwar and civil rights activists. “Congress has always been afraid that computers, if all linked together, could turn the government into ‘Big Brother,'” the show reports.

3. May 1982

Residents of Santa Clara County, where Silicon Valley lies, discover that underground chemical tanks from companies such as Fairchild Semiconductor, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel have contaminated their drinking water, which locals say has caused birth defects and miscarriages. The area is now home to 23 Superfund sites.

4. December 1982

High-flying video game pioneer Atari reports a severe drop-off in earnings, well below expectations. As luck would have it, executives had sold blocks of stock just minutes before issuing the press release announcing the company’s financial collapse. The SEC goes on to charge Atari’s then CEO and a senior VP with insider trading, one of the first such cases that shapes the 1980s.

5. July 1996

The Wall Street Journal reports the details of a letter Cypress Semiconductor CEO T.J. Rodgers sent to Sister Doris Gormley, director of corporate social responsibility for the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. The nun, whose convent owned 7,000 shares in Cypress, had sent him a form letter requesting that he install a diverse board of directors that included women and people of color. Rodgers, whose politics reflect the extreme libertarianism that is popular in Silicon Valley at the time but still largely unknown outside of it, told her to “get down from your moral high horse” while sneering at the notion of corporate social responsibility in a six-page, single-spaced response.

[Photo: Chris Hondros/Newsmakers/Getty Images]

6. February 2000

Online retailer Pets.com goes public with less than $6 million in lifetime revenue and an aggregate operating loss of almost $63 million, demonstrating a brazen disregard for business fundamentals. Ten months later, it liquidates its assets, having burned through $300 million in investor capital and leaving shareholders with a giant (poop) bag.

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7. October 2004

In their quest to control more data, Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin unveil a “moonshot” to scan and index all books—despite the objections of copyright holders who have not been consulted and who call the project unauthorized theft.

8. January 2005

Several cofounders (and investors) of the startup Epinions sue the company’s CEO Nirav Tolia and its primary venture capital firm Benchmark, alleging a conspiracy to deprive them of equity in advance of a merger and IPO (as Shopping.com) that would net Tolia and Benchmark $250 million and leave the plaintiffs with nothing. The suit, which is settled in December 2005, is a seminal moment in founders insisting on more authority, autonomy, and unimpeachable voting control in an effort to blunt the kind of power venture capitalists have wielded over startups.

9. November 2007

Facebook introduces Beacon, which tracks users’ online purchase activity at participating merchants like Fandango and shares the info with people’s Facebook friends. The program is opt-out (and even then, not really), prompting protests and—a month later­—an apology. But the company’s strategy of gathering data on users’ activities to micro-target advertising continues.

10. October 2011

Uber implements surge pricing for Halloween night, the first time it raises the cost of a ride purportedly in an effort to incentivize drivers to hit the road. The practice is deemed predatory, but Uber defends it even when it kicks in during natural disasters, revealing the consequences of privatizing what had been publicly regulated services.

[Photo: Craig Ferguson/LightRocket via Getty Images]

11. January 2012

A New York Times story details the brutal working conditions at the Chinese factories that make Apple products, noting that the company’s manufacturing partner, Foxconn, has even erected safety netting in the wake of a rash of jumping suicide attempts.

12. June 2013

Whistleblower Edward Snowden leaks documents showing the cozy relationship between government agencies such as the NSA and technology companies, such as Google, that increasingly mediate consumers’ daily life.

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13. January 2014

A wage-fixing scheme between Apple, Google, Pixar, and others comes to light. Starting in 2005, the companies had jointly agreed not to poach each other’s engineers, depressing employees’ ability to change jobs and earn more money. The companies ultimately settle the resulting lawsuits for $168 million in 2017.

14. February 2015

In the trial for her gender-discrimination suit against the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins, Ellen Pao chronicles how she was pressured into an affair with a partner and often excluded from events. The jury rejects Pao’s claims, but the case reveals VC to be a boys’ club with very few female partners.

[Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair]

15. October 2015

A Wall Street Journal report accuses blood-testing startup Theranos and its founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes of misrepresenting its technology as safe and effective. It is the first time anyone, including Theranos’s investors and board, has closely investigated the company’s scientific claims, de­­­­s­­pite its $9 billion valuation.

16. February 2016

Zenefits CEO Parker Conrad resigns from the company he founded, which is valued at $4.5 billion, when it’s revealed that he wrote a software program that let employees fake their compliance with state insurance regulations. He had decided that the training hours required by law were too long.

[Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

17. May 2016

PayPal cofounder and billionaire investor Peter Thiel admits he bankrolled the lawsuit that shuttered the Gawker website, which had outed him as gay in 2007 and been critical of his business dealings and political views.

18. February 2017

Susan Fowler, an engineer, posts a blog titled, “Reflecting on one, very, very strange year at Uber,” in which she details sexual harassment, internal political struggles, and systemic disrespect for women. Most troubling, Fowler depicts an HR organization disinterested in—and complicit in—her mistreatment. The resulting firestorm initiates a conversation about Uber’s toxic workplace culture and plays a role in CEO and cofounder Travis Kalanick’s resignation in June 2017.

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19. February 2017

YouTube’s lax policing of content comes into the spotlight after one of its biggest stars, vlogger Pew Die Pie, repeatedly posts videos with jokes about “death to all Jews.” Critics find that the platform hosts—and profits from—popular content devoted to everything from unfounded conspiracies to racist vitriol.

[Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

20. April 2018

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress on his company’s role in disinformation campaigns that influenced the 2016 election, along with its data collection and privacy practices—ushering in a larger conversation about Facebook’s impact on society.

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