Wednesday 18 September 2019

Marie McGinley: 'Tech firms must earn the public's trust on personal data'

It took the Cambridge Analytica scandal at Facebook to teach many of them exactly how big tech firms made their money. Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/PA
It took the Cambridge Analytica scandal at Facebook to teach many of them exactly how big tech firms made their money. Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/PA

Marie McGinley

He invented it. Now he figures it's time to rescue it. Tim Berners-Lee has launched a new global campaign to save the internet from abuse, discrimination and political manipulation.

At the Web Summit in Lisbon, Berners- Lee called on governments, companies and individuals to back a new "contract for the web" to protect people's rights and freedoms on the internet.

"Good luck with that," I thought, as I read his speech. "How sad is that?" was my second thought. Because here, within the lifetime of one of the key men behind the whole idea, is the reality that the perfect, ultimate technology for information-sharing has become so corrupted that this key man needs to stand up and cry "Halt!"

If you analyse mainstream media coverage on any given day, the fact is that the internet is portrayed more as a threat than as a promise. That is matched by the fear of governments throughout the world about the growing power of big tech companies. And the exploitation of personal data is at the heart of the unease.

A real and happy naïvety characterised how users interacted with social media in the early days. With platforms such as MySpace, Bebo and Facebook, most thought their personal data would stay private and that they would have control over how it was used. That was if they thought about their data at all.

It is difficult to tie down the precise point, but somewhere along the line, the fun stopped. Scams directed at credit cards were just the beginning, the catalyst making web-users aware that they owned something called "data" and that it was of more importance to their future than they might have realised.

People started to feel that they had been blindsided into handing over huge amounts of personal data without fully understanding the consequences. It took the Cambridge Analytica scandal at Facebook to teach many of them exactly how big tech firms made their money.

The penny dropped. We now live with a tech industry with our data as its main asset, not its technology. I'm not sure that many people saw that coming, or now know what to do about it.

Users are now becoming much more cautious about sharing personal data and they care about where, to whom and how they disclose it, in a way that they didn't before. More and more users are looking to the big tech firms to secure their data, to protect it from exploitation, to respect consumer privacy and to develop technologies that ensure the web is a public good that puts people first.

For tech companies who rely on people to willingly share their personal data to power their business models, it is a worrying time. The firms that will thrive into the future are the ones who are listening carefully to users and taking seriously the responsibility to earn and keep the public's trust.

Companies that understand and show that they care about personal data and privacy will not go unnoticed. Innovation in dealing with data privacy and a reimagining of tech business models may well be required because "business as usual" is no longer an option.

Tech companies need to respect and prioritise this shift in perspective and act to retain the trust of users. Those firms that haven't already done so need to get serious about transparency, accountability and consent in the context of data protection. These are the firms that will have a very significant commercial advantage.

Tech companies would also do well to focus more on the next generations of web users by educating children and parents about the dangers and benefits of the internet. Investing in programmes such as the hugely popular coding workshops for young people help to strengthen trust and reputation with the wider public.

The wider tech sector needs all the help it can get, because the public is watching and wondering like never before.

Marie McGinley is a partner and head of the data protection and intellectual property team at Eversheds Sutherland

Irish Independent

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