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Data & Intelligence November 22, 2019

Big Tech in a Big Trust Crisis

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A hot topic for some time now has been how technology companies store and use our personal data. During WebSummit 2019 this was no different. Various speakers and panel discussions showcased how big tech has a big trust problem amongst consumers.

A shift amongst consumers

Despite a couple of critics like Andrew Keen and Evgeny Morozov, up until a couple of years ago, many people trusted large tech companies like Google, Uber and Airbnb. We believed that these leaders could solve a lot of our problems. Since, after all, they brought us great solutions. They kickstarted the sharing economy, gave us free information, made us more social and boosted the economy.

As tech solutions continue to mature and become further embedded into our daily lives, the topic of trust becomes more relevant. But how can you trust algorithms which make decisions for you? And are we sure we can trust a data-mining company which tracks our daily movements and social interactions? And lastly, is it okay to pay for supposed free services with our personal data?

When and why did this change?

During a panel discussion at WebSummit 2019, Ro Khanna from the American house of representatives stated: “This shift in consumer mindset started during the early years of Wikileaks and was propelled into the spotlight after the scandal with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.” Since then, politicians and journalists have become more critical, and big tech is often portrayed negatively in the news. Even former technocrats are starting to change their minds. Fake news, unnecessary data collection, interference in elections, and discriminating algorithms are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tech scandals of the last couple of years.

During WebSummit, there were many talks which revolved these issues. From ethics to trust problems which surround big tech. One can’t help but wonder, will the leaders of the tech industry slowly develop the same image that people had of bankers during the financial crisis?

Give me some solutions, please!

During another panel discussion, Brad Smith, President at Microsoft, mentions that it is the responsibility of governments to step up and create clear legislation. He acknowledges that this is hard to achieve in the tech industry because it’s a global industry and regulation that has been enacted so far is often times local. Also, governments cannot keep up with the speed of this industry. New tech developments are frequently ahead of regulations. Therefore, governments should not try to control the latest innovation but instead create future-proof frameworks which can be applied to all future innovations. For example, GDPR regulations in the EU which Smit praised. “Parts of the tech industry in Silicon Valley and governments in the States are jealous of these European developments,” stated Smit.

Our personal data has become the new global currency and governments must act and create regulations on the collection and ownership of it. GDPR is a step in the right direction, but it does not provide all the answers. For instance, it does not address the ownership of non-personal data. Who, for example, is the owner of data that a smart car produces? Is it the driver, the car company, the government, the insurance company or road construction companies? As we become more and more connected, the amount of non-personal data available will grow yet few people are talking about this.

How to continue?

Unfortunately, there is not one all-encompassing solution. Tech-critic Andrew Keen has been warning the public about the dark side of the industry since 2007. However, no one paid attention to him until a couple of years ago, when governmental leaders and the tech industry started tuning in. Currently, he is seen as the expert when it comes to solutions pertaining to this topic. 

According to Keen, in order to make the tech industry more human and ethical, the industry should focus on five pillars: social responsibility, regulation, competitive advantage, freedom of choice for consumers and education. Below, you can find concrete examples which were mentioned during various talks at WebSummit 2019 which embody one or all of those pillars.

These are some nice examples, but the biggest shift still needs to come. If you look back in time, breakthroughs always occur as a reaction to demands from the population at large. Currently, a slow change in mindset is taking place. This new, technologically savvy generation understands the relevance and need for a more ethical digital world. In the future, one hopes that they will create companies which will abide by the five pillars.

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