As technology continues to take over our lives, what solutions are being proposed to reassure the growing resistance to Big Tech and protect us as individuals and corporations?
The backlash against the negative influence of technology on society, privacy and democratic processes has been growing for months. The headlines in 2018 were littered with stories of data breaches, election interference, fake news and questionable corporate ethics. Facebook is in the spotlight for its role in the US presidential election and the “Brexit” UK referendum, Google was hit with a record antitrust fine in Europe, and Equifax, Uber and Deloitte were exposed for breaching the personal data of millions of users.
As a result of this backlash, many people claim to no longer trust technology to protect their personal data and all over the world citizens, bureaucrats and politicians are pushing back against the power held by tech giants including Google, Facebook and Amazon. Regulations are being introduced, best practices are being implemented and ethics are being debated. The days of companies washing their hands of the potential impact of their tech are over.
Data Protection & ePrivacy
We’re living in an age of mass data collection. Every move we make in the online world is tracked, analysed and stored. Over the years our data has been harvested from Internet browsers, emails, loyalty cards, online maps and wearables, and we’re slowly realising that the concept of online privacy is nothing short of an illusion. Our personal data is a commodity and we are the product, not the consumer.
The sheer number of mass data breaches over recent years has made us question who our data is shared with. We are increasingly concerned about how personal information is being used by organisations in both the public and private sector and this backlash has led to the introduction of various online privacy laws. The most notable of these include the E.U.’s General Data Protection Regulation (known as G.D.P.R.), introduced last year to regulate the collection, use and storage of personal data, and the upcoming EU ePrivacy Regulation on the respect for private life and the protection of personal data in electronic communications (repealing Directive 2002/58/EC) which aims to reinforce trust and security in the Digital Single Market by updating the legal framework on ePrivacy.
Companies must give consumers transparency and full control over their data and privacy and the backlash will only increase for organisations that are not proactively addressing these concerns.
Democracy and Targeted Ads
Considered by many to be the catalyst to the tech backlash, the Cambridge Analytica scandal forced us to turn our attention to issues of data collection, privacy, and the political weaponisation of targeted ads on social media platforms. Over 87 million users had their data harvested under false pretences by the political consulting firm for the purpose of the precision targeting of ads for a number of political campaigns including the US Presidential election and the Brexit referendum, both in 2016. The scandal revealed the many ways people can be deceived and manipulated online and the potential democratic repercussions.
As a result, Facebook, Google and Twitter were forced to face Congress in a showdown over Russian election interference and a #DeleteFacebook movement on Twitter spurred online debates about the moral and political merits of the platform. Facebook acknowledged that the platform had been used in unforeseen ways and responded with a new push to “bring people closer together” by emphasizing content from friends and family over commercial brands, and European Union data protection regulations have forced Facebook to “protect free expression, keep people safe, and respect privacy”, according to the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg.
Corporate Ethics & Fair Tech
Another positive change to come out of the recent tech backlash is that brands are slowly realising the importance of promoting strong ethics and core values. There’s been a shift in corporate ethics and reputation is more important than ever now. A mea culpa after a mass data breach just won’t cut the mustard. Consumers need to believe they are being protected by the brands that they choose and they need to understand their motives.
A central question at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting was how to prevent the misuse of technology. Technology executives acknowledged that major players in the tech industry are no longer seen primarily as positive engines of economic growth and that Silicon Valley’s outsized influence is being treated with suspicion by the public. Billionaire investor George Soros compared Google and Facebook to mining and oil companies, saying that both “earn their profits by exploiting their environment. Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social-media companies exploit the social environment.” Soros added that “this is particularly nefarious because social-media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it.”
Another encouraging step forward after the tech backlash has been the creation of a non-profit organisation known as Ethical Tech, a nonpartisan initiative at Duke University focusing on research, education, and policy development across all industries and socioeconomic groups. Ethical Tech explores issues at the intersection of ethics and technology, fostering discussion and the development of ideas based on technological innovation, consumption, and regulation. Their collaborative work reaches across industries, governments, academia, and the public, encouraging all members of society to have an active voice in the future of technology. It is a coordinated effort to educate the public and at the same time, to ask tech providers to take a look at their products and to ask whether they are actually helping or exploiting their users.
Where Do We Go From Here?
A paradigm shift seems to be underway in Silicon Valley. The tech backlash has forced us to ask important questions about the way we relate to technology and how much data we are willing to share. It has opened up our eyes to the subliminal influence of social media, fake news stories and the echo chamber effect (where we are only shown content that reinforces the political and social views that we already hold).
We’ve taken off our blinkers and we’re re-evaluating the way we interact with our devices. We’re installing ad blockers, declining surveys and opting out of cookies. We’re thinking twice before sharing our data and the knock-on effect suggests it is going to be a big year for privacy protection apps, data blockers and other security services.
The days of unbridled data harvesting and manipulation are numbered and the ways in which corporations listen and how they respond to this debate is crucial if they are to continue developing technologies that society can trust. Or at least that’s what we hope.
To enable comments sign up for a Disqus account and enter your Disqus shortname in the Articulate node settings.