BoxWorks 19 - IBM CEO Ginni Rometty warns on data regulation and trust in tech

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright October 4, 2019
In conversation with Box CEO Aaron Levie at BoxWorks 19, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty talks tough on data privacy regulation and trust in technology

BoxWorks 19 Aaron Levie and Ginni Rometty

Box CEO Aaron Levie fulfilled a long-held ambition at the cloud collaboration vendor's BoxWorks conference yesterday when he welcomed IBM's Ginni Rometty to the keynote stage. The two companies have partnered for several years, but this was the first time calendars had lined up to allow the IBM CEO to appear in person at BoxWorks.

The twenty-minute discussion covered topics that won't be a surprise to habitual Rometty watchers, but the IBM boss didn't pull any punches when expressing her views on data privacy regulations and trust in technology.

On data protection, Levie takes a similar line to Rometty on what he described as the risk of "balkanization of privacy laws." Returning to a theme she'd raised at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Rometty warned of the peril she foresees if privacy laws aren't standardized nationally and, ultimately, internationally. Taking her cue from the impending introduction of California's own data privacy laws in January, she said:

There should be consistent consumer privacy regulation in this country. Can you imagine every state came up with a different rule? This would be a disaster.

She also argued for "precision" in targeting data privacy laws, saying that laws intended to protect consumer rights shouldn't inadvertently impose unnecessary restrictions in the B2B sphere:

Having worked with so many legislators around the world, they don't understand the difference between consumer and business-to-business. You could put a crashing halt on the digital economy, so that you couldn't even send your own company data across borders. This would be crazy. So there should be a free flow of data.

There's a particular danger internationally, she added, recalling a meeting she'd had the previous week with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India during his visit to the US.

This was my one point with him, you have to let the free flow of data happen.

There are many countries looking to localize data now, and they're going to, unintentionally, completely hurt their own GDP, by the way. So I believe in that kind of precision regulation, really aimed at where there's been misuse, because otherwise everyone's going to pay a tax. It is completely unproductive.

But she told Levie she believes governments will make the right decisions in the end, noting the advice she and other leading CEOs have recently passed to the US government via the influential Business Roundtable corporate lobbying group.

I guess I'm optimistic, at the last minute, we'll get there ...

One of the big points that we're really advocating is a consistent consumer policy right now in this country. It's timely now.

Earlier in the conversation she had spoken about trust and the how the technology industry must take responsibility for retaining the trust of the wider population.

The third issue on trust, I think has to do with preparing people to live in this digital era — that if we don't do something, this is not going to be an inclusive era.

This is true of every country. In the United States, all the riches cannot go to the West and East coast. If people look at the future and say, 'You know, this is great, this technology, but I don't have a better job. And this isn't going to be good for me.' This is why you get Brexit, this is there every country I go into.

So I think in this era of trust, it's our jobs to get people prepared. I want to tell my company, if I'm going to build this technology, I've got to bring it safely into this world.

As an example of what can be done, she described the New Collar program that IBM and other companies are building, helping students from community colleges and P-Tech schools in underpriveleged areas to train for technology careers.

Rometty also spoke about the journeys established businesses have been going on as they adjust to digital technology. There's been a shift in attitude, she believes:

Two years ago, people were afraid of new companies coming in. Now they're afraid of their existing competitors getting really good with data.

We are now in a second phase of cloud adoption that is moving beyond the first chapter where businesses moved their customer-facing processes to the cloud. The next phase sees back-end processes also changing to keep pace:

I think we are all in this chapter two now, where I will call it inside-out. You're now having to change the mission critical work ... breaking it into components, so it can be as flexible as the front ends. It's harder. It's like 80% of the now cloud journey to go. And it is really about data, workflows, mission critical apps.

My take

The big picture from Big Blue.

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