At a time when we need digital services the most, we trust tech companies the least - a damning verdict from Joe Public

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan May 12, 2020
Summary:
The COVID-19 outbreak has made key internet platforms and services an integral part of daily life. It's unfortunate then that the public has such a low image of the tech sector.

mistrust
(via Pixabay)

The general public trusts the technology sector less than ever and at a time when the COVID-19 crisis makes us more dependent than ever on internet services.

That’s the grim conclusion from a new study from Doteveryone, the UK  thinktank founded by Martha Lane-Fox, which polled 2000 British citizens for its People, Power and Technology: The 2020 Digital Attitudes Report into sentiments toward tech firms and their role in society. The report states:

People continue to feel the internet is better for them as individuals than for society as a whole. But the benefits are not evenly shared: the rich are more positive about tech than the poor, risking the creation of a new class of the ‘tech left-behind’. And it finds most people think the industry is under-regulated.

This is a critical time, it argues:

The public is once again recalibrating its relationship with technology. The pandemic lockdown has accelerated even further the already dizzying speed of technological change: suddenly the office has become Zoom, the classroom Google and the theatre YouTube. The transformations wrought in this period will be lasting. The outcome of this period of increased tech dependence must be one where technology serves people, communities and planet.

There are three top line conclusions from the survey data:

  1. There is a gap between the benefits people feel from technology in their lives as individuals and the impact it has on society.
  2. People now understand the collection and use of data better than they did two years ago when the last study took place, but this is not translating into greater ability to shape their online experiences.
  3. People are very worried about online harms, but the very poor experience of trying to hold tech companies to account has led to a sense of resignation and futility.

Drilling down further, key findings from the poll include:

  • 81% say the internet has made life a lot or a little better for ‘people like me’ as individuals, but only half feel optimistic about how technology will affect their lives (53%) and society (50%) in the future. Women are less optimistic (48%) than men (58%) and over 45s were less optimistic (48%) than under 45s (59%).
  • People on higher incomes are much more likely to believe the internet has made life better for them (85%) than those who are less well off (75%). Wealthier respondents are also more likely to believe the internet has a positive impact on society overall (62%) compared with just over half of those on lower incomes (52%).
  • Only 19% believe tech companies design their products and services with their best interests in mind. Tech harms prompting concern include children being exposed to inappropriate material (84%), scams (83%) and bullying (74%), through Fake News (73%) and tech addiction (60%), to decision making by AI (58%), facial recognition technologies (40%) and targeted advertising (39%).
  • Half of respondents (50%) believe that attempts to cheat or harm them are ‘part and parcel’ of using the internet. But nearly half (47%) feel they have no choice but to sign up to services despite the concerns and lack of trust they have, while 45% reckon there’s no point reading vendor terms and conditions because they believe that companies will just do what they want anyway.  Two-thirds (67%) say people like them ‘don’t have any say in what technology companies do’.
  • Over half (53%) want to see a more straightforward procedure for reporting tech companies for bad practice. Only a third of people (34%) know where to go for help when they experience a problem, while a quarter (26%) say that when they have reported a complaint, nothing happened as a result. 
  • 58% of the public say that the tech sector is regulated too little, blaming government (53%) and independent regulators (48%) for this. It is regulators (43%) and tech company leaders themselves (41%) who are seen as the most able to influence the effects of technology with only a third (35%) seeing government as likely to be effective.
  • People are willing to accept trade-offs to support tougher regulation, such as fewer services due to heavier regulation (64%) or more controls and restrictions on what they see online (59%).

Recommendations

In response to the findings, Doteveryone is calling for a number of recommendations to be considered, warning:

The Coronavirus response has understandably put much of the policy agenda on hold. But the crisis has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies in people’s personal lives and across the public and private sector and will create long term change in how society functions. It’s vital that this does not take place in a regulatory vacuum.

To that end, it calls for:

  • An independent body, the Office for Responsible Technology, to be set up with the remit of co-ordinating efforts to create a suitable regulatory environment.
  • All tech companies to be required to implement “trustworthy, transparent design patterns” that show how services work and give people meaningful control over how they operate.
  • All tech companies should be obliged to create “accessible and straightforward ways” for people to report concerns and provide clear information about the actions they take as a result.
  • Companies’ complaints processes should be based on seven principles of better redress in the digital age: design that’s as good as the rest of the service; signposting at the point-of-use; simple, short, straightforward processes; feedback at every step; navigating complexity; auditability/openness; proportionality.
  • Digitally-capable 'Super Complainants' should be empowered to demand collective redress from technology-driven harms on the public’s behalf and to channel unresolved disputes between individuals and companies.

My take

In her foreword to the report, Lane-Fox reminds readers:

I founded Doteveryone to put the public voice at the heart of shaping our digital world. In this report we hear that voice loud and clear again: people love the internet, just not at any price…The response to the [COVID-19] pandemic is supercharging the speed of technological change. This change must be driven by the interests of people, communities and planet - not just the profit margins of the tech companies.

Will the current crisis be more successful in triggering real change than previous ‘statements of intent’?  A lot has changed since the last study in 2018, but hasn’t made much difference, observes Doteveryone:

The media has turned its focus on a series of scandals, politicians have promised to regulate and ethics initiatives and have mushroomed across the tech sector. But what’s striking from our 2020 research is that all of this appears to have had little tangible impact on people’s experience of, or attitudes towards, technology. They still feel a gap between the individual and societal benefit of technologies. Although people’s understanding has increased, they can’t translate that into any real power over their digital experiences. And their concerns about the impacts of technologies continue to go unheard.

This was a UK-centric piece of research, so the conclusions may, of course, vary in other countries, but given the controversies of recent years, an underlying sense of distrust and skepticism is likely to be a common thread. 

Sadly I suspect it’s going to take more than a boom in online grocery shopping, takeaway deliveries and Zoom uptake to put that right anytime soon.