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Bill Gates: Robber or revolutionary and is it time for a Twitter health warning?

By Colin Grant

July 1, 2012 | 5 min read

INTRIGUING QUESTION in the Observer: “Are these men the robber barons of the digital age?”

Above the headline are pictures of Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Michael Dell, Steve Ballmer, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Larry Ellison, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.

Below John Naughton asks: “Most of us use their innovations, but what do we really know about today’s captains of industry—the wealthy and powerful figures who control the digital universe?

“What are their values and their politics? And are they any different from the ruthless corporate moguls of the past?”

The original robber barons were essential to the world they inhabited, which is why they were allowed to get away with it.

John Naughton describes how a small band of entrepreneurs built the USA and says: “these gents amassed huge fortunes for themselves using a raft of dubious techniques, including fraud, stock dilution, the bribing of corrupt politicians, the creation of secret cartels (ironically called trusts) and the ruthless exploitation of poorly paid, non-unionised workers."

These old crooks made a great deal more money than the titans of new technology listed above.

A list of the top ten wealthiest Americans of all time features only one of today’s tycoons, Bill Gates in fourth with a peak fortune of $136 billion.

Quite far above him are John D Rockefeller £336bn, Andrew Carnegie $309bn and Cornelius Vanderbilt (with a name like that he was surely destined to be a mogul, either that or get bullied in the playground) with $185bn.

Although quite interesting and informative, the article doesn’t provide direct answers to any of the questions it poses.

Perhaps that’s because the questions are largely irrelevant.

Let’s face it, if you object to Zuckerberg’s politics, whatever they may be, would that be enough for you to turn your back on Facebook?

How many potential victims have abandoned Google since learning the company founded by Page and Brin has confessed to secretly, and illegally, compiling megabytes of personal information about millions of people?

And what would you do about Oracle whose co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison reportedly said: “Now we can track not only what you’re buying, but what you’re saying. We know who your friends are and what you’re saying to your friends.”

That last one’s a tricky one because I don’t understand what Oracle does, even though I Googled it! But the underlying issue is that very few of us care what these people really believe in because it is hard to imagine living without their inventions.

AL MURRAY is one of my favourite comedians, but his piece in The Sunday Times about the Twitter joke trial is deadly serious.

“You’re bang out of order on the terror joke, m’lud” describes the ordeal of Paul Chambers, who is appealing against a conviction for tweeting a “message of a menacing character”.

Judge for yourself how menacing you think this is: “Crap! Robin Hood airport closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”

Paul Chambers was expressing his frustration because his travel plans to meet his new girlfriend were disrupted.

Perhaps a bit over the top, trivial and misguided, but many, including me, think it is acceptable in a society which values free speech.

What happened next is a chain of events straight out of the secret service annals of Ceausescu’s Romania.

Al Murray describes the unfolding horror: “Paul lost his job. The police had his computer for almost two years.

“The man working at Robin Hood airport who discovered the message in a search on Twitter passed it to the security manager who realised it was a ‘non-credible threat’ but had to refer it—he wasn’t allowed to use his discretion, rules is rules.

“The police handling the case called it ‘foolish’ and said it had been ‘posted as a joke’ but passed it up to the Crown Prosecution Service.”

In court Chambers was forced to stand in a bulletproof glass booth. After being found guilty and fined £1000 the former trainee accountant decided to appeal, attracting support from Murray, Stephen Fry and many other Twitter followers, 20,000 of whom sent the same tweet and were not arrested.

After the first appeal the two judges couldn’t come to a decision so on Wednesday it was back to court for the second appeal in front of three judges.

The trio’s verdict is expected soon, but the case leads me to ask if Twitter now requires a health warning?

If the law is such an ass it might be the only way to prevent another Paul Chambers fiasco.

This will be my last Sunday Exclusive for a while as I’m off on holiday, but will be back next month.

COLIN GRANT is a former journalist who now runs Spectrum PR, a Glasgow-based public relations and media consultancy.


Twitter: @spectrum_PR

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