This has been a year when significant light has been shed on how technology companies such as Facebook and Google leverage customer data for financial gain. Some of this should not be surprising, since little in life, after all, is free. The grand bargain has been that we get to use Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, in exchange for their accessing and using some aspect of our data – the modern day version why broadcast TV has always been ‘free’. Things went wrong when these companies abused that privilege, have not been transparent, and have been slow or resistant to implement change. At the least, the transgressors (a pretty long list) have shown remarkably poor judgment, with the worst offenders acting immorally and perhaps illegally.
That said, I’ve been bothered by how some of the companies who reckon themselves as the ‘good guys’ have been using this opportunity pile on their Silicon Valley brethren for competitive gain. Tim Cook has publicly vilified Facebook on several occasions, most recently in a high-profile speech in Europe. This week, Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, joined Tim Cook and others in criticizing some companies’ abuse of consumer data.
I find this behavior somewhat hypocritical. Google, Apple, Facebook, especially, are hugely inter-related. None of them would be what they are, and as profitable as they are, without each other. With so much that is politicized these days, I don’t think most of us are anxious to see Silicon Valley polarized as well. And while Apple hasn’t ventured into the same territory as Facebook, I can’t exactly see Tim Cook as tech’s White Knight, given Apple’s at the very least indirect role in fomenting the modern day near health crisis of screen addiction.
So here’s an idea. Rather than more useless Congressional hearings or the development of regulations that will take years to develop and implement (the debate about which will also be undoubtedly politicized), how about the Silicon Valley brain trust coming together to fix this? These are the folks who can be proactive in developing some ‘rules of the road’ that could protect consumers and mollify regulators, while ensuring that their primary means of making money is not significantly compromised.
It is not any one company that is going to fix this. We might be able to come up with some basic minimum standards regarding the use of consumer data. But there are many other elements to a successful implementation. One is transparency. This will go a long way in restoring trust. And by the way, part of this might involve tiers of relationships with consumers. For example, would some consumers be prepared to pay a modest fee to use some of these apps free of ads or data utilization, in the same way there are different subscription options for Hulu?
Another key aspect of this is defining a common standard for consumers to see how their data is used and settings for various levels of opt-in. Facebook has done some of this in reaction to all the hullabaloo this year, but the settings are still somewhat buried and the interface is not intuitive. It will not be helpful if the experience and UI is completely different from one company to the next. I’d love to see a common Dashboard that cuts across the major consumer applications. This could be a great output of some collective work by some of Silicon Valley’s leaders.
And here’s an opportunity for Apple, especially in the U.S., where they still own the majority of the smartphone market. They clearly have deep expertise in software and user-friendly design. The ‘screen time’ settings are a good initial effort at addressing that issue…why not offer to port that development to a ‘consumer data settings dashboard’.
If Tim Cook and Ginny Rometty want to be Silicon Valley’s white knights, why not stop vilifying their colleagues and, instead, say to their tech brethren: “Guys, we have a problem. Let’s use our collective resources (software, UI, AI) to head this thing off at the pass”. By heading this off at the pass, I mean not leaving it to Washington, and not developing something quite as overwrought as GDPR, which might not fully fly in the more market-oriented U.S.of A.
Several key tech company execs have already said they would be open to some form of regulation. So perhaps it would be more effective to initiate this from the Valley rather than the Beltway. Call it the ‘Consumer Data Privacy Task Force’, deputize a couple of senior execs from each of the major players, and have them come up with a plan to present to Congress. Address the three key issues: Rules for what consumer data can be shared, how and by whom; How this get communicated to consumers; and what’s the optimal way to give users some visibility into and control over their data in a standardized, intuitive fashion.
We’re at a fork in the road on this issue. It has become politicized, and is in danger of falling into the hands of regulators, who are ill-equipped, on numerous fronts, to effectively address it (see: Facebook Congressional hearings). The big question is, can Silicon Valley step up?