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Regulate Facebook like tobacco, says Salesforce CEO

Commentary: Marc Benioff insists that addictive products deserve greater government intervention. But is any tech company truly innocent?

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


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Scorning lesser tech souls?

Kimberly White

And now they turn on their own.

It used to be that Silicon Valley was one vast love-in, with so many of its senior figures believing they were angels brought together to deliver the world to a better place.

How times have changed.

As it's become clear that many real people are highly suspicious of tech executives' true souls -- or lack thereof -- finger-pointing has become rather trendy.

The latest to offer his digit of disapproval is Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff

Speaking to CNBC in Davos, Switzerland, Benioff suggested it's time for social media to be treated not like an oxygen of society, but a carcinogen. 

He wants Facebook and its ilk to be treated like a health problem. 

"I think that you do it exactly the same way that you regulated the cigarette industry. Here's a product: Cigarettes. They're addictive, they're not good for you," he said. 

It's all gone too far, he said.

"Product designers are working to make those products more addictive and we need to rein that back," he observed.

Just as in areas such as food or financial services, he said, "in technology, the government's going to have to be involved. There is some regulation but there probably will have to be more."

Facebook didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Salesforce didn't immediately respond when I asked what areas of its own business might deserve greater regulation.

Benioff's comments follow other famed tech figures -- some former Facebook executives -- suddenly beating their chests in sorrow at what the site may have wrought. 

Former Facebook president Sean Parker, for example, worries what it's doing to children's minds. And only last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook said he worries about his tween nephew using social media at all.

I can't help worrying myself.

I worry that there's a rush for certain tech companies to brand themselves the good guys, leaving others -- such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg -- as the poster people for social dissolution.

Indeed, in his comments to CNBC, Benioff said there are two worlds in tech -- companies driven by purpose and companies driven by mere product.

Which might seem odd to those observers who always thought these companies were uniformly driven by money.

Weren't they all, to one extent or another, in this together?

It's hard to keep your heart in the right place when you're making vast amounts of money.

Benioff may well be an enlightened soul, but there's a danger that some CEOs are tending toward sanctimony. 

The whole of the tech world has surely conspired, sometimes unwittingly, to create a society in which everything -- seemingly life itself -- happens in, on and through gadgets

We sit in restaurants brandishing them and ignoring our dinner partners. We sit in bed and nothing appears different, except that we're not wearing as many clothes.

Just as you're no one if you're not on social media, it's unlikely you can have much of a career unless you can immerse yourself in software of every hue. 

So we sit in vast offices (and, sadly, at home), staring into screens, with only our headphones for company.

While tech companies themselves might claim higher purposes, the everyday lives of their employees have been sucked into technology that many find it increasingly hard to switch off. Whether it's work emails or Instagram notifications. 

Is this 24/7 envelopment really good for us?

I'm sure, though, that Salesforce does have a higher purpose. Why, it's adorned San Francisco with the tallest building west of Chicago

It did it for the city's good, you understand, not just its own. Just ask Salesforce co-founder Parker Harris.