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Category: Technology Events

  1. New Ways of Acting and Communicating Needed to Make Responsible Tech the New Normal

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    Responsibility is the newWhat does Responsible Tech mean, and what does the industry need to do to make it happen? There is a great deal to do to win back the trust of the public, regulators and legislators and so enable the innovations that could have widespread positive impact on society. This means asking hard questions, changing behaviours and communicating more effectively.

    Responsible technology was not a phrase you heard much 18-months ago – but now it is on everyone’s lips. Last week I attended the Responsible Tech 2019, hosted and curated by Martha Lane Fox’s organisation Doteveryone. The one-day conference was packed with examples and exhortations to change the way technology companies act. What has brought this on? Well certainly there was agreement that the tech sector had its own ‘annus horriblis’ in 2018 with a string of exposés and crises leading to a significant “unravelling of trust in our sector” to quote Lane Fox. But, perhaps it is more than just a reaction to recent news. When I asked Jeremy Silver, CEO of Digital Catapult if it was not just a case of a few bad apples polluting the barrel, he replied that it wasn’t so much “one bad apple in the barrel, but most of the trees in the forest,” that were the issue.

    So, it seems that among this group at least, there was a recognition that the tech sector had to change if it was to continue to prosper – and importantly, win back the trust of citizens, customers, regulators and policy makers. The undercurrent to the whole event was that tech can solve many (but not all) of the big issues that face society, but only if it gets its own house in order, rethinks ‘Why’ it does things and works in concert with society to deliver real value.

    The problem came when discussion turned from aspiration and vision to practicalities. Diversity is a key concern, and speakers including Mark Martin, co-founder of UK BlackTech as well as being a secondary school IT teacher; and Dr Anne-Marie Imafadon co-founder of STEMettes, told eloquent and effective stories of grassroots schemes to attract and support individuals from the BAME population and girls to succeed in technology careers. Martin saw the potential to make the UK “the most diverse tech sector in the world”. But these schemes must be supported and extended to bear fruit – so far things are still very stale, pale and male in the industry. Martin quoted research showing zero-percent of UK born BAME leaders in the UK tech industry – a truly alarming stat.

    On the product side there were many calls for better product design with greater care taken over the consequences of technology adoption. Many speakers called for formal consideration of potential unintended consequences as part of the design processes – perhaps even a Hippocratic oath for technology to ‘first, do no harm’. One of the issues identified was that the speed and impact of tech was now so large that processes and systems needed to be altered to create time and opportunity to ask difficult questions and ensure that there were motivations to make the right choice and consequences to pursuing behaviours that are damaging to the wider public good.

    However, there were few concrete ideas as to how to accomplish this. More importantly, the big technology monopolies were conspicuous by their absence at the event. Without the market, financial and political power of the Facebooks, Amazons and Googles of the world (who are certainly among the offenders) little is likely to change even if workable and effective approaches can be found.

    So, is there a future for responsible tech? The answer is that there must be. Rt Hon, Jeremy Wright, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in his keynote at the event not only reiterated the Government’s position that “Technology companies must do more” to ensure the safety and fairness of technology but talked of ‘New rules of the road’ to balance the impact of innovation. It is also clear that the public’s trust needs to be won back if technology is to be embraced and allowed to deliver on its promise.

    Rashida Richardson of the AI Now Institute at New York University made the key point here – the industry needs to be honest about what problems tech can actually solve. Over-claiming and under delivering has always been an issue for the sector, but now the impacts are so vast it is not just disappointments that result, but potential damage to significant sections of a society.

    And this leads to the role of communications in creating a virtuous cycle for responsible technology. It was strange that communicating technology did not feature in the conference presentations. When I discussed it with people, most agreed that the industry needed to get better at telling its own story in more credible and compelling ways.

    There were concerns that overly positive stories now could be the tech equivalent of ‘green washing’ or virtue signalling to distract from the negatives. Both are valid points, but by asking the difficult questions from communicators view can instigate internal reviews that not only find answers but suggest alternative approaches or behaviours.

    The current narrative needs to be rebalanced – and to an extent, detoxified. This means engaging – creating alternative, credible narratives that inform and begin to change perceptions. It will not lead to overnight change, but unless the industry starts to communicate in a more responsible, considered and considerate way, others will continue to tell the industry’s story, and paint it in a less flattering light.

    There is competitive advantage in this too. Consumers are increasingly looking for alignment of values and purpose with the companies from which they choose to purchase. Even smaller, early stage businesses can win against established behemoths if they explain and demonstrate mutually helped values through their communications.  

    Rachel Coldicutt, CEO of Doteveryone, called upon the delegates to “Make 2019 the year in which Responsible Technology becomes the new normal.” For this to happen tech companies of all sizes need to act differently, but also communicate differently.

  2. Is it possible to impose ethics on the Internet?

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    The last few weeks has seen a flurry of research, statements and calls for action aimed at trying to ‘clean up’ the Internet. But is this really possible, what would it look like and who should be responsible for making it happen?

    Brands are working harder to burnish and share ethical credentials pressured by increasingly aware and demanding consumers. But the one area that perhaps touches the most individuals, the Internet, seems increasingly to behind the times when it comes to creating belief and support as an ethical endeavour.

    The last week saw not only an unprecedented raid by the UK Parliament on documents relating to alleged cover-ups by Facebook relating to the Cambridge Analytica affair, but also calls from activist investors to force Silicon Valley leaders to share fairer voting rights. This on-top of the wide-ranging slide in share prices of so called FAANGs stocks and more revelations about Facebook’s questionable PR tactics. So how have Internet companies got it so wrong?

    The Internet is often likened to the Wild West – a lawless free for all that is nonetheless fertile ground for innovation, expansion and creativity. Perhaps a more precise analogy is the expansion of the railways across the USA at that time. Risk-taking industrialists invested and created not only an innovative communications system, but lay the foundations for hundreds of new ventures, a new capitalist-mercantilist economy and hundreds of new towns and markets. These tycoons often operated at the very edge of the law, and the ethics of what they did, and how they did it, are certainly questionable by our standards today. Similarly, the settlements, businesses, markets and opportunities created along their routes were open to exploitation. Good and bad thrived in these new ecosystems.

    Over time, governments regulated and legislated to rein-in the excesses of the railway tycoons, and civil society re-defined acceptable behaviours and expectations on the towns and populations defining both protection and responsibilities for all. Can the same evolution be expected for the Internet?   

    Earlier this month, speaking at the UN’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF), President Macron of France seemed to suggest that a degree of top-down imposition is needed to help the Internet evolve beyond this Wild West phase. He suggested that an overly liberal approach had allowed the Internet to become too wild and unmanageable:  "In the name of liberty we've allowed the enemies of liberty to gain prominence casting away everything we've fought long and hard for," he argued. Instead, he said: "We want our values upheld on the internet."

    Recently, none other than the ‘Father of the Web’ Tim Berners-Lee also published a call for commitment to more responsible management of the Internet. The Case For The Web,  a report published on 3rd November by the Web Foundation, characterises the current situation as a battle for the heart and soul of the Web, suggesting that “[the] current trends that threaten its future, and outlines actions we must take to reverse these trends and ensure that the web remains free and open for everyone.”

    Both statements, and others relating to them, have seen push back from both sides of the internet community. Those who are against any intervention that potentially damages the open, free-speech centric view of the Web, and those that feel corporate powers already have too much control over what we see online.

    Different examples of what the Internet could become already exist. China is very effective at managing what is accessible and what its citizens can say and do online. And the so-called ‘Dark web’ is an anything-goes capitalist dystopia. However, few would want either to become the model for protecting our values online. Yet, as recent news and commentary highlight, we are also becoming wary of allowing large commercial organisations becoming the gatekeepers of how we experience the internet either. So how should we create a more ethical web?

    To solve this puzzle the Internet community, by which I mean providers, regulators and users, need to get better at three things.

    Awareness. The internet is easy to use, but hard to master. For too long digital skills training has focused on the mechanics of using the internet, the basics of getting online, browsing and using web-based tools and services. What has never effectively been taught is the ethics. How to protect yourself, how to act, the impact and implications of the decisions made online. For too many people these are divorced from the real world and therefore the norms of behaviour and cultural expectations that moderate our actions offline. Much more must be done, by governments and by businesses, to close this gap.

    Choice. The GDPR regulation has been hailed as a significant step forward in enforcing the rights of the individual online. However, it will only be effective if people have a choice of providers. Active encouragement through investment, regulation and communication is needed to stimulate alternative providers and business models that provide consumers with other options. If they want to trade personal data for free services they can, but they should also be able to opt for alternative that have other ways of exchanging value. Regulators need to ensure that these new models have the opportunity to flourish.

    Mutualism. Macron called for a more multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance and whilst vested interests will fight this it does seem fairer than allowing decisions that affect potentially billions of people worldwide to be made by a small number of commercial organisations plus several key governments. It is a utopian view, but a higher level of discourse, openness and collaboration could help solve many of the Internet’s current issues.

    The tide is already turning. Informed audiences are becoming more vocal and helping the mainstream to align behind calls for more choice, better regulation and more transparency in the online would just as in the offline. Governments, quangos and regulators need to ensure that choices and ‘rights’ exist, are upheld and widely communicated. And internet businesses need to ensure that they are acting ethically and in line with the expectations of their customers. They need to demonstrate this and communicate this consistently as the core of their brand. The wild west era must come to an end, if we don’t want a police state we need to create, communicate and abide by ethical standards now.