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

Looking to 2020: Five Emerging Trends that Will Drive Big Change in Tech

December 18, 2019

After a 2018 defined by the “techlash,“ tech giants must have had high hopes for a better 2019. It didn’t turn out that way—and instead the techlash actually accelerated, with a recent Pew Research survey of the American public showing negative views of technology companies’ impact on the US have nearly doubled between 2015 to 2019.

Why? 

Rather than calming—or meaningfully addressing—mounting concerns, Big Tech continued to make serious missteps on issues like data privacy, anti-competitive practices, and content standards and moderation

At Omidyar Network, we believe in tech that brings opportunity and improvement in our economies, our civic engagement, and our communities. But while it has brought us many advantages and simplified our everyday lives in countless ways, from navigating commuter traffic to video calling faraway friends, tech’s downsides are more clear and prominent than ever, leading to a severe decline in trust

As we look to 2020, we’ve identified five trends that will help drive significant change in the industry. Some are more hopeful and aspirational—maybe a couple of years out—while others are more tangible and feel right around the corner. 

1. Consumers and Investors Look Beyond Big Tech and Unicorns

It’s hard to imagine social media without Facebook (or WhatsApp or Instagram), online shopping without Amazon, or search without Google; so much so that we consider the dominant tech players to be here for good. While we don’t see these giants going away anytime soon, history shows dominant players across all industries are susceptible to fragmentation over time—and that consumers and investors can, and will, go elsewhere.

Shrinking consumer trust and a growing spotlight on the harms of our desire for convenience may inspire more people to spend their time and money elsewhere, beyond large tech platforms, for their day-to-day wants and needs. Big Tech’s trust challenges could create a massive opportunity for innovative companies and startups building thoughtful technology that prioritizes society and user experience over profits, engagements, or clicks. Take Mastodon, a Twitter-like social network that’s entirely community owned and has user feeds that are ad-free and non-algorithmic. And they’re not alone. There are already plenty of entrepreneurs who want to grow sustainably and ethically, giving consumers more options outside of dominant companies.

It’s also never been easier or cheaper to start a business, thanks to tools like Shopify and Stripe. This had led to an increase in companies fueled by minority founders, who tend to be overlooked within conventional venture capital. As a result, we anticipate continued changes in where entrepreneurs get their funding including: crowdfunding; alternative capital like Clearbanc or Earnest, who invest through a shared earnings agreement; or Tinyseed, a remote accelerator designed for early-stage software-as-a-service founders. 

2. Privacy-Enhancing Tech Gains Steam

Awareness of the ubiquity of mass surveillance and location tracking, combined with scandals like Cambridge Analytica, have put privacy in the spotlight. Even still, Big Tech hasn’t gone far enough in addressing privacy concerns. Instead, it feels like they just don’t seem to care. And consumers are caught between a rock and a hard place—with choices like either making yourself a pariah (or at least making life deeply inconvenient), or staying on platforms that violate your privacy. 

Simply put, without privacy-enhancing policies and protections, the push to expand the global digital economy could make people and communities even more vulnerable to dominance, manipulation, and exclusion. 

That’s why we hope to see continued growth of the movement of startups that put privacy at the center of their value propositions and user experiences, test new business models, offer deeper transparency, and help us reimagine the value exchange of the internet. Companies that specialize in this area will not only earn more customer trust but also expand innovation, unlocking profound social and economic opportunities in areas like education, employment, banking, and health. 

3. Tech Workers Further Rebalance the Employer-Employee Power Structure

When working people have power and voice in the workplace, they can bargain for quality jobs that allow them to lead their fullest lives. This benefits people on the individual level and at the same time builds healthy economies, societies, and democracies. But like many industries and sectors, tech is divided into the haves and the have-nots. 

While full-time, salaried, white collar employees at companies like Amazon, Postmates, and Uber are known to have perks such as generous stock options, free gourmet food, and more, contractors and part-time workers generally receive none of those benefits—and hold much more tenuous positions within companies.  

But the wheels of progress are turning, and more and more employees are organizing to demand better.

Over the past several years, tech workers have organized to protest questionable or downright immoral clients, walk out over issues like sexual harassment and climate change, and more. The desire to band together more formally is clear, with Google contractors in Pittsburgh and employees at Spin, a San Francisco-based scooter rental company, recently voting to join unions. Organizations like the Athena coalition are taking on tech giants to stop their growing, powerful grip on our society and democracy as well.

We must seize this moment by supporting organizations building worker power in ways that are sustainable, scalable, and bring cross-sector partners to the table, such as The Workers Lab and its 2019 Fall Innovation Fund that Omidyar Network is supporting. Working people need to have a strong voice and real power to improve their access to quality jobs; build power in the world's richest and arguably most influential industry; and create real change on issues from forced arbitration practices and contractor benefits to workplace culture and safety and diversity

We also expect to see more product developers and builders leading the charge to prevent the misuse of tech products and services, all while putting ethics and responsibility at the forefront of their companies. 

4. Governments and Regulators Get Smart(er) on the Issues

In an era when there are strident calls to break up Big Tech, regulate digital advertising and social media, and introduce privacy and pro-competition policies, it can be disheartening to watch governments and regulators try to stand up to industry’s technological know-how and lobbying power and then struggle to have real influence. But it’s also encouraging that people are increasingly demanding clear checks and balances to hold tech giants accountable while ensuring that technology works for people and societies. 

Overall, things are getting better. In the US, we only need to look at the difference between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimonies in the last couple of years. In 2018, media noted how “confused” lawmakers were about what Facebook does and how to fix it. This year, thanks to greater understanding and an infusion of new lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, lawmakers “slammed” him and were “unimpressed.” And in the EU, the new powers of Margrethe Vestager, head of the European Commission’s antitrust division, might galvanize better policies on competition, potentially resulting in new market structures and accountability. 

With a new wave of leaders, we hope to see continued focus on Big Tech’s power that makes it clear business as usual can’t continue. To be sure, there is a long way to go, and the balance is overwhelmingly on the side of the incumbents. But signals such as California’s new privacy law—the California Consumer Privacy Act—that goes into effect January 1 next year, the multi-state antitrust investigation launched earlier this year, and the EU’s GDPR show that governments and regulators have bite. 

All the while, we know there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to overseeing and regulating the tech industry, which is why mature companies must be treated differently than startups. Because while we want to rein in dominant platforms that suppress competition or widely spread disinformation, we also want to ensure we don’t stifle competition or create too many barriers to entry.

5. Organic Content Enters the Crosshairs

Paid political ads have been a large part of the tech debate in the last year. While this focus area will—and should—demand further scrutiny, we are also hopeful the dangers of certain organic content on encrypted messaging platforms are more closely examined.

Around the world, enormous harm is being done using online platforms like WhatsApp, all without spending a single dollar on ads. In the last couple of years alone, WhatsApp messages have incited a series of lynchings in India, swayed an election in Brazil, sparked riots in Indonesia, served as a hotbed for white supremacy in Germany, and contributed to child sexual abuse and trafficking the world over.

To be clear, services like WhatsApp need to stay strong on encryption, which is a critical feature in protecting our human rights online. But we also hope to see product changes to stop them from being so easily exploited, including by reining in spam, making all groups opt-in by default, incorporating tools that detect malicious content, and collaborating with third-party experts to understand the impact of dangerous content—and how to address it.

A Hopeful Year Ahead for Responsible Tech

Technology can and should be a force for good in our society, and we are encouraged by the diversity of a growing movement that includes techies, consumers, governments, regulators, academics, and the media to ensure technology positively impacts our societies. 

At Omidyar Network, we understand we all must continue promoting and supporting human-centered tech that offers greater individual empowerment, social opportunity and inclusion, and user safety. That’s why we’re doubling down on supporting organizations doing great work—and also making bets on new and not yet fully formed ideas with potential to innovate on areas like privacy, data security, civic engagement, and more. And at the same time, we expect 2020 to see a rise in campaigns (e.g. WhyID?Facebook security) and organizations (e.g. Coworker.orgZebras Unite) aiming to steward society’s future relationship with tech and lead important conversations.

Together, we can help build one of the greatest outcomes of the next decade: an even more organized, united responsible tech movement that brings together all of these issues, senses new ones early, and produces lasting change.

We can’t wait to see what 2020 brings. 

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