Silicon Valley Giants Should Hold A Summit on Data Security and Privacy

Next week, Mark Zuckerberg will be trotted in front of Senate and House committees for what will surely be a high-profile admonishment of his company’s behavior. There’ll be a lot of bloviating by our elected representatives. Zuckerberg will be both prepared and contrite. But this issue is bigger than Facebook. Facebook might be the whipping boy du jour, but most of the Silicon Valley giants have exhibited some form of less than laudatory behavior at some recent point, between the unseemly uses of user data, security breaches, and lack of transparency.  That’s why Tim Cook’s vilification of Mark Zuckerberg earlier this week was actually a bit off-putting.

Notwithstanding next week’s expected spectacle, we should recognize that this is an important moment in the 20-year history of the broadband Internet. It is time for the Silicon Valley giants – who control a vastly outsized share of how users connect, communicate, and consume content – to come together and establish some rules of the road going forward. They need to show some leadership, and head off regulators from getting overly involved. Perhaps they should do this collectively, in some way. Why not a summit on data security and privacy?

Let’s first recognize that much as these companies compete, they are very much intertwined. Facebook, Apple, and Google, especially, would each be far less without each other. Rather than each of them taking this moment in time to address the issue of consumer data and privacy separately, it might make sense to do something collectively. There are three steps involved in this, in my view.

Step One is to establish some minimum level of what is appropriate to do with a customer’s data. We can call it a ‘code of conduct’, although the term is a bit vague and overused. In some cases, we have been criticizing these companies for crossing a line, when the line itself has not been particularly defined. Consumers know that there’s sort of an unofficial bargain here. Facebook, Google, Twitter might be free, but these companies profit from customers’ data and what they do online. Some subscribers might be OK with some of their data being made available to third parties – especially if they benefit from it in some way. But more direct communication and transparency is crucial here. We also need to recognize that as technology evolves and future opportunities arise, there will need to an ongoing dialog.

Step Two involves doing a much better job of communicating to customers exactly what is done with their data, and what sorts of controls they have over that. As an example, perhaps all Facebook users should be required to take an online tutorial that shows both how their data is or could be used, and what the various tools and settings are available to help them manage that.  It is also incumbent on us to become better educated about what is being done with our data, and what we can do to exert some control over that. Perhaps the leading companies should get together and develop the data equivalent of ‘drivers ed’, as a requisite for using these [free] services.

Step Three is developing better consistency across platforms that enable consumers to manage privacy and what is done with their data. Right now, the experience of managing app settings, from privacy to notifications, is quite different between iOS and Android devices, and fragmented still further within the Android ecosystem. It’s a whole other ballgame on PCs, and across the different OSs, browsers, and the like. Within leading apps, such as Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Outlook, and so on, it would be great if there was some easy to find and easy to use ‘hub’ that would function as both a source of information, and present a consistent approach to managing settings. Too often, this stuff is in obscure places and the configuration tools somewhat obtuse.

At a minimum, this ‘summit’ would include Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and possibly Amazon. It might also make sense to have AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and possibly Netflix and Intel at the table. This group collectively represents an astounding 70% of the collective PC/mobile OS, digital advertising, online commerce, mobile/broadband, and pay TV markets.

We’ve loved reckoning these first 20 years of the Broadband Internet as sort of a ‘Wild West’. But now that much of the land has been grabbed, it’s time to bring some order to these parts. I think it’s a cop-out for Messrs. Cook and Zuckerberg to say that maybe there should be some ‘regulation’. I’m not sure that regulators know enough about this stuff to get it right, and let’s face it, our Congressional leaders aren’t exactly high on the customer trust/satisfaction list themselves these days. I’d love to see the extremely smart and capable leaders of Silicon Valley have a collective deep think about how they can rebuild a relationship with their customers that has become a tad fractured of late.

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Mark Lowenstein

Mark Lowenstein is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem, an advisory services firm focused on mobile and digital media. He founded and led the Yankee Group's global wireless practices and was also VP, Market Strategy at Verizon Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein and sign up for his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here.

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