Unsquandering Of The Digital Commons
Corporate Wealth vs. Public Good. Could Tech Platforms Deliver Both?
Have you ever wondered how much public trust in the Tech Sector is worth? Now we know. It is at least half a trillion dollars — the amount of losses spanning the two weeks following the first revelations in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. With so much value at stake, this is a moment of reckoning for the giants of the Silicon Valley. It is also our chance to reimagine how the digital commons are organized and administered.
Either by design or by chance, the tech platforms set themselves up as custodians of the public commons. Lyft and Uber offer open access to millions of drivers and passengers. Youtube, Twitter, and Instagram avail their platforms to user-generated content. AppStore and GooglePlay are the commons where app developers go to reach potential customers. However, as Alexander Howard, of the Sunlight Foundation, notes “our public squares are hosted on private platforms that weren’t designed with civic good in mind.”
The digital commons didn’t exist until a few ambitious, blue-sky-thinking startups gave us the Internet platforms we’ve come to depend on today. The Big Tech would argue that, despite the scandals, data breaches, and grumbling about privacy, we all are better off — the popularity of services and the spectacular performance of the tech stocks serving as evidence.
Breaking the rules, challenging the conventional wisdom, disrupting the status quo is how the Big Tech came to exist
Yet, there are calls to break up Amazon and for the Government to “fix Facebook.” And it looks like the e-honeymoon, where the Googles, Apples, and Alibabas of the world could do no wrong, is over. The consumers and regulators alike are growing increasingly wary of the data-hungry corporations operating in winner-takes-all type of markets. The recommendations from Julia Angwin, who writes for ProPublica, are most certainly sound: (1) impose fines for data breaches; (2) police political advertising; (3) make tech companies liable for objectionable content, and (4) install ethics review boards. It has traditionally been the role of the government to protect the public commons; but Big Tech could as well to step up before governments step in.
Many of the Silicon Valley giants haven’t had a chance to shed their rebellious startup identities and now find themselves dumbfounded by the degree of expectations the society is placing on them
To go from zero to hero in the world of systemically significant global corporations used to take decades. Businesses had time to mature, reassess their roles in society, and consider the degree of responsibility they were willing to accept. Many of today’s Silicon Valley giants haven’t had a chance to shed their rebellious startup identities and now find themselves dumbfounded by the degree of expectations the society is placing on them. Breaking the rules and disrupting the status quo is how the Big Tech came to exist; and suppressing one’s DNA may be easier said than done.
Tragedies of the commons get resolved when stakeholders find a way to manage the public commons better. In this scenario, enlightened self-interest should drive the Tech CEOs to accelerate the culture change in their companies; this can start with amending the lingo and rethinking org structures.
Change the vocabulary
Successful companies pride themselves on being customer-centric. The framing of the relationship is such that the “customer is king” and the government (often an industry regulator) is what stands in the way of a corporation’s ability to serve her.
But what if the public institutions, be they national, state, city, or municipal level, were deliberately and unequivocally included in а pool of potential customers? What if a typical board agenda included a recurring item to consider how the core technology could serve the public interest?
One can only wonder what Uber would have achieved if, from the early days, it viewed municipalities, cities and towns and not just uber-riders, as its customers.
This is not to say that businesses must cozy up to regulators or that the Government agencies should accept services from the companies they are expected to oversee. The public interest is represented by many institutions at many levels, and when businesses extend the same courtesy and consideration to them that they do to other prospective customers, win-wins for common good become possible.
Take Uber for example. The New York Times reported that Innisfil, Canada, retained Uber’s services when it needed a transit system. Notably, it wasn’t Uber that created a product, which it marketed and sold to many towns the world over, but rather an enlightened leadership of a small town that went ahead and hired the company to meet its transportation needs. One can only wonder what Uber would have achieved if it viewed municipalities, cities and towns and not just uber-riders, as its customers.
Change the organization
To continue thriving, a global corporation has to find a bigger problem to solve, rather than protect the business model that has delivered in the past
A chief in-house-lobbyist is the term frequently used to describe the head of Government Relations within a company. To lobby, according to the Cambridge dictionary, is “to try to persuade an elected official to take a particular action or change a law.” The definition itself implies an inherent misalignment of interest between the business and the government.
But what if we focused on common objectives? Perhaps a company wouldn’t need a lobbyist, but a Chief Partnership Officer. Take LinkedIn for example, it recently launched The Economic Graph, the explicit goal of which is to “partner with private and public organizations to empower local governments, nonprofits, and educators to make informed decisions that create positive economic outcomes.” Solving problems is how businesses succeed and to continue thriving, a global corporation has to find a bigger problem to solve, rather than protect the business model that has delivered in the past.
Change the culture
Culture, as Peter Drucker convincingly argued, eats strategy for breakfast. The change of terminology and the revision of the org chart can only go so far, but real transformation is possible when attitudes and value sets adjust. It is time to reinvigorate discussions on how mission and vision can become more inclusive and focused on creating the societal value above and beyond that of shareholders.
The technology itself is value-neutral, so it is up to the companies to deploy it in the ways that will maintain and protect our digital commons for the benefits of the many, not the few.
The executives must eventually accept new levels of responsibility and realize that a genuine engagement with stakeholders could pay off in many ways including reputational benefits, earned media value, consumer loyalty, etc. Goldman Sachs has estimated that “goodwill and other intangibles on the books of companies in the S&P 500 at $2.6 trillion, or 10% of their total assets.”
All in all, the tech enterprises are well-placed to innovate in the public interest. The technology itself is value-neutral, so it is up to companies to deploy it in ways that will maintain and protect our digital commons for the benefits of the many, not the few. Let us not allow the lack of imagination to stand in the way of progress.