Consumer Techlash, Part 2: The Education Phase

on August 23, 2019
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The so-called ‘tech-lash’, which has been a gathering storm for about two years, is now a full-fledged hurricane. We’ve moved from the bloviating stage (concerns, bad press, and hearings) to the call for action stage (fines, lawsuits, regulatory action). As one interesting indicator, The New Yorker, in its August 26 edition, has a major piece, titled “Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience”.

Even with all these winds swirling, the major actors yet to experience significant repercussion: profits and stock prices are near all-time highs; and, as I wrote a few weeks ago, there has yet to be significant consumer backlash (What’s Missing from the ‘Tech-Lash’: Consumers).

This lack of broad-based consumer anger is due in part to the un-stated ‘tech grand bargain’ (free = data collection and targeted advertising), but also inertia (tendency not to take action until personally affected). But there’s a third aspect, which I’d like to discuss here, and for which I have a proposed solution. I call it the ‘deer in the headlights’ phenomenon: the issues are so many, so broad, and so obtuse that consumers don’t know exactly where to direct their anger or how to take action. As a friend asked me at a recent dinner: “Am I supposed to be mad at Facebook?”

Here’s an example of the yin and the yang. On August 21, Facebook announced it was rolling out tool to limit off-Facebook data gathering. Great!  Now, have your non-techie friend or colleague read the following passage from the lay-friendly CBS News website:The company is launching a long-promised tool that lets you block the social network from gathering information about you on outside websites and apps. This includes the “Facebook pixel,” a piece of code that businesses can use to track activity on their sites by people who have a Facebook account, and “Facebook login,” which lets people use their Facebook ID for outside sites.”  Huh?

This tells me that regardless of the hearings, fines, new regulations, and corporate actions that will surely be coming down over the next few months, this will largely remain an inside-the-Silicon-Valley-Beltway issue. It is barely a blip in the consumer consciousness, and this is a big problem. The companies can roll out all the tools they want to appease the regulators and make themselves feel better, but they will be ineffectual until the average consumer realizes exactly what the problems are and then actually does something about it.

So, here is my proposed solution. New regulations, settlements, fines, etc. should have a significant consumer education component. There are two important elements. First, consumers need to be much better informed about a range of issues related to their data: security, privacy, how it can be used and by whom, and so on. Second, user-friendly tools need to be developed that allow consumers to adjust settings appropriately, understanding the tradeoffs (i.e. less relevant advertising).

As I’ve written before, having some understanding of how data security and privacy works is a the 21st century equivalent of Driver’s Ed. We all need to know the basic rules of the road.

There are numerous ways this could be implemented. I’d love to see the FTC or other entities that are collecting significant fines from Big Tech direct meaningful dollars toward a broad-based consumer education campaign. This could be a clever, creative, and informative video (“Your Data 101”) that, yes, perhaps has to be mandatory for consumers. Not unlike how every parent has to take a short mandatory course before their kid gets a driver’s license.

Then, I’d like to see a requirement that each of the major platforms (Facebook, Google, etc.) develop a series of user-friendly, easy-to-discover tutorials that clearly lay out how to adjust settings for items like data collection, advertising, search history, etc. Users should not be expected to go deep into menus and settings themselves to learn how to do all this. And, these companies should staff call centers for consumers who have questions. Yes, Google, Facebook, and friends: Joe the Plumber and Mom the Septuagenarian should be able to talk to a human being at your company. Not email, not chat, not ‘product forums’, not clever AI routing, not Zendesk: a human being.

There are other ways to take a personal approach: ‘Your Data 101’ could be something offered at Apple stores and other retailers. Maybe there could be a fund used to train and then pay instructors to teach ‘Your Data 101’ at Adult/Community Education centers, which exist in nearly every city or town in the country.

For the average consumer, it’s time to stop merely reading about ‘Fake News’, data breaches, and the like.  It’s time to become at least conversant about what is happening, and what can be done about it. And any consequences/new regulations of Big Tech that come out of this process should include a requirement that the relevant actors do a better job of both educating consumers and training them on how to take action.