Anamitra Deb
Senior Director, Beneficial Technology
&
Sarah Drinkwater
Director, Beneficial Technology
&
CV Madhukar
Managing Director, Beneficial Technology

Four Ways to Reset, Restore, and Renew Trust in Technology

November 15, 2019

Around the world, policymakers, journalists, tech workers, activists, and parents continue to expose the challenges of unchecked power, creating a real moment of reckoning with how technology and society interact. Technology has undoubtedly made the way we work, play, and connect easier than ever. It has brought advantages to all of our lives. But we’ve seen a collapse in trust in the use of digital technologies, suggesting the time has come to reset the tech industry, restore competition, and renew trust. The world needs more than convenience from tech; we need it to be safe and healthy for all.

As Techonomy’s “Reset and Restore” conference kicks off this weekend, we look forward to discussing our current thinking and a handful of solutions that can move us forward. We want to live in a world where technology can be a force for tremendous good, spurring innovation while promoting human well-being, respecting individual liberty, and upholding democratic ideals. To accomplish this, we need to create the conditions that enable a new wave of more purposeful tech entrepreneurs and empowered users, while also establishing strong checks and balances that hold mature tech companies accountable.

Here are four ways to get there. 

1. Tech Giants Need Competition and Governance

After years of catering to tech behemoths with tax breaks and loose regulations, we're finally seeing government officials take formal action to address the power imbalance between tech and society. In July, the US Department of Justice announced its intentions to open a broad antitrust review of big tech, an effort that was already underway among former tech leaders and organizations dedicated to anti-competitiveness issues. But various institutions—in the United States and abroad—must go further to rein in the power of the biggest tech companies. 

In support of platform accountability, we’ve invested in various groups—such as Open Markets Institute, Public Knowledge, and Yale’s Thurman Arnold Projectled by Dr. Fiona Scott Morton—that are changing the narrative and bringing evidence to compel action. The Anti-Monopoly Fund, led by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, will be a clearinghouse for academic research, policy advocacy, storytelling, and grassroots action.

Also during this period of global review, our partners, which also include ITS Rio and Lawyers Hub, can help inform a range of solutions, from national data protection to competition regulations to privacy policies, which are matched to the specific risks and harms resulting from global tech dominance and conduct. And we must actively shape standards on how platforms incentivize disinformation and dangerous speech in service of an extractive business model, while respecting users’ rights to express themselves freely and privately. 

2. Tech Users Need Transparency and a Role to Play

Clear, enforceable policies are meaningful and essential, but government leadership alone isn't enough to provide all users a safe and healthy experience online. It's important to support independent nonprofits and consumer protection coalitions that represent the public interest and provide tech users with the information and opportunities to engage in these debates. Advocates, such as Consumer Reports, are fighting for open information on how tech companies operate as well as championing due process, informed consent, and digital literacy for vulnerable communities.

Other groups, like Busara Center for Behavioral Economics and IDEO.org, are empowering users to share their experiences and preferences to shape the products and companies we transact with as well as change the role we play in tech decisions. And we were one of the first supporters of the Center for Humane Technology, led by Tristan Harris, which among other things helped increase understanding and action around screen time and addiction. 

3. Tech Developers Need Training and Practical Tools

Users aren’t the only group that needs more education. Innovators must learn how to proactively probe for and protect against the negative impacts of technology decisions to ensure products and services are developed with ethical guardrails. 

There’s a practical set of resources for tech builders, thinkers, and designers to ensure ethics and societal impacts remain top of mind. For one, the Ethical OS toolkit helps tech builders identify risks and prevent harm more effectively. Additionally, Civic Signals, led by professor Talia Stroud and internet activist Eli Pariser, who recently spoke at TED, are developing a better model for public spaces online with design principles that strengthen civic fabric and promote a healthy democracy. And the Good ID approach is guiding software and hardware developers along with their government and business customers in how to protect people’s identities in a surveillance age. 

And far away from Silicon Valley, in emerging markets from India to Nigeria, tech policy networks like CIPESA and ID4Africa are producing operational guides, cross-continent learning exchanges, capacity-strengthening programs, legal hack-a-thons, grant programs, and pilot projects to help leaders worldwide reckon with the downsides and opportunities with the digital economy.

4. Privacy-First Startups Need Alternative Business Models

There’s also the importance of exploring new incentives, business models, and relationships with tech investors. Zebras Unite is calling for a movement to transform the prevailing startup and venture capital culture and is attracting entrepreneurs and investors who bring different perspectives to the world. And a coalition of investors are rethinking how they source, vet, and support portfolio companies by piloting a new investment process via the Race to the Top initiative. They, like Omidyar Network, are investing in technology companies like Terbium Labs that put trust and privacy first, approach personal data responsibly like Digi.me, deviate from the invasive ad tech model, and change the data economy for the better. 

Technology needs to be steered to deliver positive outcomes for individuals and society. When it works in service of people, technology can accelerate inclusion, expand access to services, and stimulate innovation that improves lives. With proper stewardship, we can reinforce this phenomenal potential and reduce the risks of technology misuse. 

Delivering on a More Beneficial Tech Experience for Users

We believe principled technology is the byproduct of innovation and creativity, empowered technology users, clear rules and boundaries, and an evolving discussion about technology’s use in society. We must continue to expand and strengthen these efforts—both by doubling down in support of organizations doing great work, while also finding nascent ideas that are more experimental and creative to round out and diversify key strengths in this space. The insular culture of big tech is one that must be examined and upended to create an inclusive environment where new ideas can flourish, consumers have agency, and civil society can create forums for debate, discussion, and action.

We have to assume that future issues will arise that we have not yet explored. Diverse opinions are critical to anticipate the challenges and opportunities that will undoubtedly come with new tech products and services. The ability for us as a society to participate in the shaping of technology, the overall user experience, and even sometimes the rejection of it, is critical to delivering on a more beneficial tech experience for users.

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