What kind of tech company are you? Some key questions for everyone in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations

21 March 2018

In this blog, our Director General, Amanda Long considers some of the key questions raised by the recent Cambridge Analytica revelations and explains why it's time to reclaim what progress, innovation and growth mean in the digital age.

The full story of the Cambridge Analytica case is still unfolding, with official investigations by the ICO and UK Parliament pending. However, alongside some of the more detailed inquiries about what occurred, much bigger questions remain about how companies and regulators operate in the digital economy and society now - and what we should demand of them in the future.

The impact of the revelations are currently focused on the UK based-company, and the US 2016 election, but reach much further and not just in the countries it is reported to have operated in.  It shows yet again how difficult it is to cleanly separate out consumer issues online, when many interactions particularly on social media are a blend of social, cultural, political, entertainment and consumer activity. The data collection tool that began as a light hearted online personality survey which then captured data about users and then to access information about their online friends is a perfect example of this. 

Developing rules in these environments is hard - yet even where well written rules and regulations exist like the new EU General Data Protection Regulation, they are and will be meaningless without effective monitoring and enforcement. They will also remain hollow without a more fundamental rethink of what we mean and expect of trust, responsibility and accountability in the digital economy and society.

It’s simple: digital growth cannot happen without trust

A year ago, we co-hosted the first ­ever G20 Digital Consumer Summit called ‘Building a digital world consumers can trust’. Our argument was simple: continued digital growth cannot happen without people’s trust.  

We said that as tech increasingly integrates into people’s lives, it is no longer sufficient to tell consumers it will bring convenience and speed or save them money. It is no longer sufficient to say to regulators and policy makers that it will bring innovation and growth. They have to offer more than just a tick box, privacy notice or adjustable settings as an answer to people’s growing privacy and security concerns. They have to offer more than just a transaction – whether in the form of a payment or an exchange of personal information for a free service.     

A year of change: time to reclaim innovation and progress for everyone

A lot has changed in a year: the recognition of the impact of fake news on political processes; the attention given to what an artificially intelligent world might mean for jobs; the effect of addictive technology on young people’s wellbeing to name but a few. And now, the Cambridge Analytica case, perhaps the clearest example yet of the ability of digital applications - in the guise of a harmless survey - to reach deep into our personal lives and attempt to use this to influence much larger scale social and political change.

Calls to reflect on the purpose of new technology, to listen to people and thinking about their whole experience online, and their expectations of company behaviour can no longer be dismissed as ‘stifling innovation’ or progress. It’s time to reclaim what progress, innovation and growth mean in the digital age from the point of view of the people at the centre of the often disruptive forces of technology as both citizens and consumers.