Regulating Benevolent Tech

 /  Dec. 2, 2018, 4:35 p.m.


Tensing my finger to click, “I have read and accept the terms,” I hesitate. What if I’m about to sign away the rights to all my future earnings? Or maybe my firstborn child? Alarm bells ring through my brain. You’re overreacting, I tell myself. I start to skim through the contract—see, just innocent legalese, nothing to worry about. Soothed by the professionalism and normalcy of the document, I fall in line and click my agreement.

All fears of diabolical Rumplestiltskin schemes aside, I’m worried about data privacy. The Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal made plain that on many sites, users are products and not consumers. This product status grows dangerous when married to widespread ignorance of what it means to be a tech company’s product—what data do companies have? Who do they sell that data to and why? What do the buyers do with it?

I retraced my steps and dissected why I felt so blasé about agreeing to online contracts I had never read: I find comfort in the thought of countless others also blindly accepting terms. There is safety in numbers, even virtual ones.

Scrutinizing this herd mentality exposes a carefully curated beast: perceptions of benevolent tech. From classroom giveaways to promises of fixing the healthcare industry, today’s tech monoliths ask humanity to kick back, relax and use their products as their armies of engineers innovate the world’s problems away.

Last spring, Mark Zuckerberg capitalized on this notion of a benevolent Silicon Valley while testifying before Congress. Zuckerberg painted his company as perhaps naive but always well-intentioned. He started Facebook in his dorm room, he reminded Congress, and mistakes were bound to crop up. He justified Facebook’s right to avoid profit-killing regulations with the tech world’s youthful purity, advocating instead for self-regulation.

The intentions of every last software engineer may be wholesome to the core. That does not neutralize the lurking menace of self-interest. Corporations need third-party boundaries to deter unethical behavior. Liberals typically see legislation as the solution, while conservatives put their faith in free market competition.

Thus far, tech giants have largely sidestepped either of these checks. On the free market front, these tech giants settle deeper into specialized niches each day. Growth makes monopolies of monoliths, which allows these companies to dwarf competitors and to shirk accountability.

Congress is not stepping up to the plate to regulate these companies either. Congressional technological illiteracy, like Senator Orrin Hatch’s confusion over how Facebook sustains itself without charging fees (to which Zuckerberg spluttered, “Senator, we run ads”), made it clear six months ago that Congress lacked the technical chops to produce effective tech legislation.

In September, senators questioning Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey were careful to showcase that they had done their technical homework this time around. Despite their new technical chops, Senators shied away from advocating for regulation. They were quite clear that they would prefer to pursue promises of good intention over legislative regulation.

An exception to this rule is Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), who prefaced his political career with twenty years in the tech sector. Last July, Warner published twenty insightful and informed regulatory suggestions. However, his suggestions seem to have fallen on deaf ears; Congress has yet to enact major legislation regulating tech companies. If Congress does not want to regulate them and capitalism cannot stop them, who will push these companies towards transparent and ethical behavior?

The responsibility falls on the users of these platforms. Digital users need to realize and act on their collective ability to force accountability in Silicon Valley. To do so, users must inform themselves of companies’ practices and advocate for themselves accordingly.

An easy though tedious start to informing oneself is to suck it up and read those contracts. For a more efficient evaluation process, users can refer to credible and accessible reports on data privacy, like New America’s Ranking Digital Rights “corporate report card” project. If something feels off, users can speak up through several different methods.

One path of advocacy is to pressure legislators to support laws like the European Union’s recent GDPR law. The GDPR law requires increased transparency in data collection policies, making it harder for tech companies to encourage users to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” and thwarting the mirage of benevolent tech. Pressure on lawmakers would convey that the spectacle-driven tech hearings of the past year are not enough; constituents want comprehensive tech regulation, not political theater. Another weapon available to disenchanted users is to support nonprofits that legally advocate on behalf of users, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Finally, users can provide direct criticism to the company itself. Communicating concern to a customer service representative and starting dialogues with fellow users on the platform in question can be impactful. Deleting an account sends an even more powerful message. When #deleteFacebook was trending this year, Facebook rushed to reform its product. A recent piece in The New York Times took this idea to the next level, suggesting that, by contributing to the network effect of Facebook’s echo chamber, users are nearing a moral imperative to leave Facebook for the sake of the common good.

Even if users pursue none of these paths, the act of critically and honestly examining one’s usage of online platforms lays the groundwork for active digital citizenship. While still in college, Zuckerberg said of his users, “they ‘trust me.’ dumb fucks.” Users: prove Zuckerberg wrong. Advocate for yourselves. Do not blindly submit to the seduction of Silicon Valley.

Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Gate.

The image featured in this article is from Pexels and is used noncommercially. The original can be found here.

Elizabeth Crowdus


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