Is technology a force for good?
THE FUTURIAN #1
Can we trust technology? This is a question that often personifies the inanimate. Technology has enabled us to live longer, travel further and access higher levels of education with more ease than any other generation has experienced. It is to whom is behind this technology that we apply our trust. When we buy a computer, we trust that it will not self-combust in our homes. Yet when we log onto the internet, we do not necessarily trust the intentions of other users. Emails from a Nigerian prince promising to make us all millionaires are often met with frustration rather than elation. This is because we trust the logistics of technology but not how individuals use it.
As of 2020, there were over 4.6 billion active internet users. This represents 60% of humanity. It would be hard to argue that technology has not been a fantastic tool in poverty alleviation. Global communications have enabled rural developing areas access to education, work, and a better understanding of healthcare. Microsoft teamed up with the UN in 2004 to provide technological solutions in Africa to alleviate poverty. The results of this, and many other programs, helped reduce global poverty from 35% in 1990, to 11% in less than 25 years. Technology as an inanimate tool has improved millions of people’s lives immeasurably. Why, then, do we need to still consider whether technology is trustworthy?
Let us think to the sinister aspects of technology. The faces behind the machine. Social messaging app WhatsApp is the number one messaging service in the UK. But it is also a recent piece of technology that has raised eyebrows over its trustworthiness. WhatsApp updated their terms and conditions early in 2021 which allowed yet more data to be gathered on the users. WhatsApp’s parent, Facebook, now monitors who you are speaking to, what you discuss and even the timing of this. Why, you might ask, would Facebook want to store this data on you? Profit. It is important to remember that Facebook, and other technology platforms, are for profit businesses. Access to your personal data enabled Facebook to earn nearly $70 billion in advertising revenue during 2019.
A broader look at Big Tech stocks reveals further worrying results. The FAANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Alphabet — known as Google) make up 15% of the US’s S&P 500 index with a market capitalisation of £4.1 trillion. When compared to the top 5 UK companies with an aggregate market capitalisation of £0.6 trillion, it demonstrates how much reliance the US places on a handful of companies to keep markets stable.
Where reliance is placed, so too are opportunities for manipulation. In early 2021, support had been growing for Parler, a social media competitor, whose advertising focussed on free speech. In just one month, their user base jumped from 2.3 million to 15.0 million at January 2021. However, on 10 January 2021, the site was suspended. This was not driven by legal requirements but instead Google and Apple suspended the app from their download stores. This was followed by Amazon also suspending their hosting of the application.
Parler had been suspected of helping to incite hate during the US Capitol riots and in line with Big Tech’s policies, they were suspended. However, this was not undertaken after intensive review and consideration. There were no third-party adjudicators. There was also little opportunity for the company to react and improve. A sceptic might further suggest that the companies who stood to gain business from less competition might feel higher levels of motivation to simply eliminate Parler.
It is important to also consider the morality of technology before concluding on trust. Tax and tech have often been words not used positively. Amazon, often cited as the lowest taxpayer in the FAANG, paid roughly £2.5 billion in US taxes between 2010–2019. However, this equates to a tax rate of 13% which is set against the US’ corporation tax rate of 35% (21% from 2017). The numbers are not much better across the pond, but how are they able to do this? Loopholes. Technology has tapped into a global market where legislators are unable to keep pace. It is hard to put trust in businesses not willing to participate fairly in society.
Technology is no longer an optional addition to your daily life. It is a utility. It is unlikely that you are able to work, to be educated and soon even to turn your lights on and off without technology. Yet all other utilities have significant regulation. Think electricity and water. These are considered fundamental utilities. Regulation is likely to be the only way in which we can start to feel trust in technology. We can see the start of this within Europe following Poland’s new proposed laws in which social networks can be fined up to £9.8m for removing or manipulating content without legal grounds. They plan to regulate this through a Free Speech Council which would be voted in and have a maximum term.
Europe has not stopped there; two new legislative proposals were submitted during December 2020 that also aim to enhance technology’s transparency and to create a set of standards within the technology industry. These are the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA). Once passed, technology businesses must demonstrate higher levels of responsibility for the users of their platforms. No longer will the Nigerian princes be able to message you on social media.
The old adage might still be true today, if you are not paying for the product then you are the product. As long as this applies to the technology we use, then we cannot trust technology. We trust the water industry to provide clean drinking water due to the tight regulations and strict enforcement that governments have introduced. This is not yet the case with technology.
However, there is hope coming from Europe. The introduction of DSA and DMA would also create a requirement for annual audits within the technology industry to ensure that practices on security and transparency are adhered to. Today, we can trust the hardware of technology. Tomorrow, I hope we can trust the providers of technology.
© Charlotte Aguilar-Millan 2021