Five Minutes and Counting — Time For Big Tech To Take Ownership of Sector’s Reputation

By Jeff Joseph and Rich Thau

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” — Warren Buffett

“We see vividly — painfully — how technology can harm rather than help,” warned Apple CEO Tim Cook in an October 24th address to European privacy commissioners. “Platforms and algorithms that promised to improve our lives can actually magnify our worst human tendencies. Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence, and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false.”

Cooks comments reflect a rising truth: Americans love their gadgets, but don’t love how those gadgets’ creators have let problems spin out of control. That dissonance is a cancer on the tech industry.

The discomfort with tech companies felt by many Americans was further amplified as rants, conspiracy theories and hate speech permitted to foster online may have contributed to real-life tragedies in Pittsburgh and Louisville as well as the recent escalation in threats against prominent politicians of both parties.

Individual firms wear blinders to industry-wide threats, focusing on their own struggles and ignoring the damage to the industry overall. Every misstep serves as an invitation to lawmakers to regulate not only these companies, but the tech sector at large.

And while Cook and Facebook’s Privacy Chief Erin Egan both largely called on the U.S. to adopt tough EU-style data privacy laws, they should be careful what they ask for — Even the most reasonable legislative proposals often have unintended consequences.

Action at the state level is already underway. In June, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a comprehensive privacy law, opposed by Google and Facebook. And members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are threatening action. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi plans sweeping tech regulation now that Democrats have returned to the majority.

And it’s not just about regulation. The so-called “techlash” negatively impacts the industry’s reputation and, perhaps soon, financial bottom lines.

Indeed, public opinion research shows a clear trend: Americans are increasingly uneasy about the tech industry.

A Pew Research Center study from May/June 2018 showed 55 percent of U.S. adults believe technology companies have “too much” power and influence in today’s economy. An IBD/TIPP poll conducted in March asking about Facebook in light of Cambridge Analytica’s improper use of data on millions of users showed 66 percent say Facebook’s impact on society has been negative; just 28 percent feel it has been positive.

The unease rises from issues that impact our everyday lives, and stretches across all sectors of society.

A truck driver reads about the emergence of self-driving vehicles, or a factory worker hears about the development of advanced robotics, and they worry about losing their job.

A small business owner sees Amazon raising its minimum wage to $15, and worries he will have difficulty finding workers who expect a comparable wage.

Conservatives claim online censorship and ideological bias. Liberals call for better policing of online hate speech. We all should be troubled by election interference and the proliferation of fake news. And the list continues: Fears about the security of our online information and the erosion of our privacy, concerns about device and internet addiction, and on and on.

Some individual companies are taking action. Last Spring, Facebook built a force of 20,000 people devoted to weeding out fake news and bad actors, and created systems that block millions of fake accounts every day.

Google recently announced new tools designed to help parents manage the amount of time their family spends on mobile devices, and issued a new set of policies around how it will verify election advertisers in the United States.

And certainly, tech companies are using their wealth to make a positive impact on society. From training and employing veterans and military spouses, to supporting organizations aimed at getting underserved communities involved in STEM, to efforts to help prepare Americans for the “future of work” — the industry is trying to be a force for good.

Yet, despite these steps forward, the industry is unlikely doing enough to turn the tide. It needs to join together as a sector to engage in a dialogue with its users, with a focus on solutions to build trust. Otherwise, it will become just another reviled “big-something,” like “Big Tobacco,” “Big Pharma,” and others, with all the regulatory and legislative baggage that entails.

Specifically, the industry should help people impacted by the economic transformation resulting from increased automation. It can prepare workers for future employment opportunities by banding together to fund training and education programs. It should support infrastructure development that will lessen the digital divide, such as making investments to ensure that rural communities have access to high-speed Internet. It should create a national campaign to help us access and learn to use privacy tools. And, at the same time, it should continue to remind us the many ways in which the industry has improved our lives and our world.

As new technology develops, the sector must demonstrate empathy — and take a reasonable level of responsibility — for unintended consequences, and help us find solutions to the real challenges of tech-driven economic and social disruption.

We don’t expect the sector to have all the answers, but we do expect it to do its part. For unless it takes more substantive steps to address the challenges it has wrought, the tech industry has a bumpy road ahead.

Jeff Joseph is the president and CEO of Starlight Public Affairs. Rich Thau is Co-founder & President at Engagious.

SIIA President and CEO, tech fanatic and evangelist, music lover, foodie and wannabe rock star guitarist.