It was over two decades ago that the Internet was in its infancy. Since then, it has had a significant impact on the way we live. It’s brought sweeping changes to how we communicate, work, shop, date, and travel. In those early days, especially after the first dot-com bust, no one could truly envision what was to come. And as such, tech companies had a fairly open playing field. Relatively little regulation actually paved the way for innovation, and tech companies thrived. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft aren’t called the “Big Five” for nothing. However, many of these technological and lifestyle shifts have come at a cost.
Significant innovation at a price?
Fast forward to today, where millions of us have willingly traded our privacy for free access to social networking platforms and other content. We carry around smartphones that we rely on for much more than phone calls. Data breaches and wide scale hacking are everyday occupational hazards for banks, social networks, entertainment companies and governments, to name a few. More than ever, it’s important for us to speak the same language in order to formulate solutions that enable investment and innovation that benefit the individual.
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Nov. '18 Technology PR Magazine
We’re now witnessing a reckoning among elected officials, Wall Street bankers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to better understand each other. One example is the recent testimony given by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg on Capitol Hill. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch asked Zuckerburg, “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” To which Zuckerberg replied. “Senator, we run ads.” Tempting as it may be to look down at lawmakers’ confusion about Facebook’s business model, it’s also not entirely off the mark. Plenty of consumers have a limited idea of how Facebook’s business works, what happens to their personal data, and what they can do to tighten control over their privacy. Not just on Facebook, but across the various touchpoints we all make daily with the Internet.
Clearly there is still a disconnect. But increasing regulations means grappling with complicated questions. Namely, how do you balance the free thinking that has fueled the internet’s success with laws that also rein it in? As PR professionals, we know the importance of communication and this situation is no different. There needs to be constant, open dialogue between all parties to agree on a set of regulations that will protect us but also continue to encourage the innovation which spurred the Internet in the first place.
The Internet Bill of Rights is proposing exactly that. It’s a set of principles that gives users more control of their online lives while creating a better Internet economy. Representative Ro Khanna from California recently unveiled a list of 10 points he hopes will guide data privacy laws to protect U.S. citizens in today’s digital age. It calls for, among other things, consumers’ right to Internet service without the unnecessary data collection, notification in a timely manner if a company holding personal data has a security breach, opt-in permission for data collection and greater transparency in the collection of data and what it’s used for by companies.
This is even more important because of what’s at stake today. The Internet and data usage goes far beyond fake accounts on Twitter or cloned accounts on Facebook. There’s more real-life implications we face. In the not too distant future, technological advances such as autonomous vehicles, remote surgery and augmented reality will demand even greater performance from the internet. With no predictable rules for how the Internet works, it would be very challenging to meet the requirements of these new technology advancements.
Bearing all this in mind, what does this mean for us as communications professionals? After the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data breach in March, Facebook rolled out an ad campaign that harkens back to its roots and promises to do more to keep consumers safe and protect our privacy. Uber also released a campaign showcasing its new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, and his renewed commitment to Uber customers in an attempt to salvage its reputation after the former CEO was ousted.
The backlash these companies faced brought to light not only how influential big tech has become — the Big Five in particular — but how much sway they’ve gained with the public. Does this decline in brand reputation signify a shift in consumer confidence? Because customer privacy data is a major competitive edge of these big tech companies, it means the level of risk and uncertainty has increased. And in the wake of this decline, transparent communications remains crucial. Companies regardless of size need to do the right thing by their users and develop and maintain a strong and consistent accompanying message.
Consumer consensus is that it’s long past time to see something like the Internet Bill of Rights put in place. And while historically, tech companies had opposed any sort of regulation, experts say that some kind of federal data privacy law is inevitable and more recently the tech industry seems to be on board. In September, executives from Amazon, Apple and others testified before the Senate Commerce Committee about concerns that lawmakers had over privacy and publicly declared support for a new federal privacy law. So, progress is being made. But lawmakers and tech companies will need to come together to answer the very important question of how we protect consumer privacy without stunting Internet innovation.
This Internet Bill of Rights is coming at a critical time. It’s sparking much needed conversation between lawmakers, tech companies and consumers. We have a responsibility to protect the Internet and should want to uphold a just Internet because it’s in our best interests to do so — not just to avoid a fine or persecution. As I mentioned, no one could have ever predicted what the Internet would become, and it’s hard to imagine now where it will be in another 20 years. But one thing everyone can agree on from Capitol Hill to Wall Street to Silicon Valley: we all have a responsibility to communicate openly amongst each other to protect and uphold one of the most impactful creations ever made.
Bo Park is partner and head of technology PR at ICR, Inc.