These are troubling times for the tech sector. The giants that once attracted only admiration are now forced into defensive mode and many players across the industry feel it is time for fundamental change.
This year alone, Google has been fined $1.7bn by the EU for strangling competition in the advertising market; 2020 US democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has called for Facebook to be broken up; and AI-augmented deepfake videos developed by Samsung have raised further concerns about potential manipulation of information.
Factoring in the current dystopian narrative around digital tech ending personal privacy, ‘fake news’ undermining liberal democracy and social media damaging mental health; the sector has never been more embattled.
But these ‘tech wars’ don’t necessarily reflect a society that has fallen out of love with digital technology. Nonetheless, this toxic atmosphere poses genuine risks to innovation if peace, in the form of trust in the sector, is not restored soon. This will require strenuous efforts from tech CEOs, investors and policy makers, in order to bring about real change.
Winning the peace
The list of charges laid at the door of the sector – and for good reason – is so serious that inaction is unthinkable. Yet it was not always this way.
At a roundtable Tyto recently hosted on this topic, Dr Vince Miller, social policy researcher and reader in digital culture at the University of Kent recently stipulated that 15 years ago his PhD students produced only optimistic – even “cavalier” – dissertations on privacy. They were along the lines of ‘if you’re doing no wrong, you’ve nothing to worry about.’
Today, his students are investigating the erosion of privacy, free speech, and trust in politics as a result of digital technology, as well as social problems associated with social media use.
Many in the industry now feel it is time for the narrative arc to be changed so that digital technologies are seen – once again – as a force for good. Although this calls for a willingness to engage across the sector.
Programme for change
Many believe that early in the innovation process, founders must consider not just the intended benefits of their idea, but also ask: ‘if this fell into the wrong hands, what harm could be done?’ At this ‘road-testing’ stage, steps can be taken to mitigate the potential for harm. After all, once the tech is out there, you no longer own it.
A good starting point, international business adviser, lecturer and writer Matt Peacock also argued at the same roundtable, would be for founders building a new company to read the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It sets out guidelines for both states and companies, by offering a framework for ethical operating principles.
VCs who invest in such technology are also perfectly positioned to effect change. Isabel Fox is partner at Luminous Ventures, a new breed of venture capital firm, believes open discussions with tech entrepreneurs during Series A funding rounds, should place greater emphasis on building the company correctly from the start, thus preserving its initial positive vision.
Better regulation is also vital. We need policymakers with a deep understanding of the tech industry and the many sectors within it to shape meaningful regulations for today and tomorrow.
Finally, the sector itself needs to take action. Publishers and social media platforms, for example, could proactively tackle ‘fake news’ and misinformation online by committing to the Certified Content Coalition. Its goal is to “immunise the Internet” against misinformation and the damage it can do by certifying authentic information sources.
Tech leaders can help reframe current debates to explain that, for example, the sole purpose of AI-enabled machines is not simply to steal our jobs, but instead to create a life for us filled with more meaningful activities, while these intelligent machines take the strain.
The current climate
Recent research conducted by Tyto with 600 UK respondents about various aspects of technology, revealed that almost 76% agreed that they don’t trust big technology companies to make ethical choices. However, more than 75% also believe that digital technology is having a positive impact on society.
So, although the sector hasn’t lost these ‘tech wars’ entirely, there is much still to gain by taking deep-rooted steps towards positive change.