By Steven Rosenbush
NEW YORK -- Marc Benioff, co-founder and co-CEO of business-software company Salesforce.com Inc., told business journalists Wednesday that it was time to apply much stronger controls to social media, artificial intelligence and other technologies.
Mr. Benioff renewed his assertion that Facebook "is the new cigarettes." He called for the abolishment of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the 1996 legislation that immunizes an "interactive computer service" from liability for information that third parties publish on its platform. The billionaire proclaimed that "capitalism is dead," while holding out hope for a new form of capitalism that puts stakeholders on par with shareholders.
He said he was "shocked by resistance" to San Francisco's Proposition C, which called for higher taxes on businesses to raise funds for addressing homelessness. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, is a prominent opponent, arguing the measure is unfair to Square and fintech startups. San Francisco voters approved Proposition C in November 2018, though the city has said it won't spend the money raised until legal questions are settled.
On WeWork, whose plans for an initial public offering were derailed recently, Mr. Benioff said that "an IPO is like a spiritual cleanse." That's because going public earlier in its life forces a startup to do things like find a top CEO, he said. Mr. Benioff said WeWork founder Adam Neumann, who resigned as chief executive, is a visionary, "but for sure some issues in the company got cleansed." SoftBank Group Corp., which owns a third of WeWork, has prepared a financing package that would give it control.
Mr. Benioff was speaking during an event honoring the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economics and Business Journalism, a program at Columbia University. He was interviewed on stage by New York Times Deputy Managing Editor Rebecca Blumenstein, previously a top editor at The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Benioff entered the news business himself last year when he and his wife purchased Time magazine. Highlights:
Ms. Blumenstein: How worried are you about the upcoming election and misinformation?
Mr. Benioff: Well, I think we all should we be worried based on what we have seen. You know, unless we are living in a capsule and not reading anything, which some days, I would prefer to do, actually. But we should be worried. We should be worried because there are still a lot of things we don't understand about how the technology is shaping us, and how the technology is much smarter than it was even just a couple of years ago. Let me give you an example, something that is amazing to me....We have a drone that is flying over the ocean right now....It is run by the University of California, Santa Barbara. The drone is using advanced artificial intelligence...some that we developed. And it spots a great white shark...and then the classification engine also says oh, look, it is a kids' surfing camp right here. And they were able to call the beach and have the kids get out of the water.
Now that's the use of AI for good. But technology is never good or bad. It's what we do with the technology that matters....We are in this fourth industrial revolution. We all know that. And not just the information technologies, but the biotechnologies as well. It is incredible what is going on. But we have to guide the technology. We have to point it in the right direction. Otherwise we are going to end up somewhere that we don't want to do.
Ms. Blumenstein: Don't you enable this to a certain extent?
Mr. Benioff: Well, I hope not....Companies can't wash their hands of what people do with their products. That is a key point of ethical use. And that is where I think I have had to double down inside Salesforce over the last year and a half, two years. As our technology is getting more advanced, how is it being used ethically? We set up inside our company an office of ethical and humane use. We hired a top ethicist. We built a network of the top NGOs and nonprofits in the world...to help guide us. And we have made a number of decisions around ethical use, including by the way, we no longer sell military weapons or assault weapons through our commerce platform. Our team came to us and said this is no longer something we can do. And we turned that off. That is a tough decision, by the way. But those are the hard decisions CEOs are going to have to make. And that is something that we are willing to do....This is evangelical work."
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