Paul Wright, CEO at iotec: This year we’ve seen the like of Facebook, Google, Twitter and Uber struggle to deal with a barrage of criticisms. These tech giants are under growing pressure over the growth of fake news – including stories allegedly pushed by Russia before the 2016 US election, Brexit and even the Alabama Senate Election – the spread of extremist content such as terrorist propaganda videos, and whether the sites should pay news providers for content. They are also being accused of broader issues around the impact of their technologies on society and for some their dominance in advertising and for all their business ethics.
Is 2018 the year where the tide of optimism for Silicon Valley’s darlings becomes a much more balanced conversation about the impact of these businesses in all parts of our lives?
It is about time. In the words of Uncle Ben from Spiderman, with “great power comes great responsibility.” We have seen little of the later.
The first area where challenges come from is under definitions and subsequent regulation. So far Silicon Valley has avoided responsibility for what appears on their platforms by claiming they are not media owners and, therefore, not subject to the regulation many publishers face across the world.
This position looks like it is changing with the chairman of the media regulator Ofcom in the UK has said she believes internet businesses such as Google and Facebook are publishers, raising the prospect that they could eventually face stricter regulation in line with the measures imposed on other types of media.
Some steps have already been taken in the right direction towards stricter regulatory measures Google, for example, says its engineers have developed technology to prevent re-uploads of known terrorist content, using image-matching techniques. The company also vowed to increase the number of independent experts in YouTube’s Trusted Flagger programme and to expand its work with counter-extremism groups to help identify content that may be being used to radicalise.
Towards the end of this year, Twitter announced what it is calling its Transparency Center, which will offer everyone visibility into who is advertising on Twitter, details behind those ads, and tools that enable users to share feedback with the platform.
Facebook has equally started to do some things around political ads but we shall see what really comes from it. Maybe proposals like the Honest Ads Act in the US, which seeks to provide more clarity and transparency around digital political advertising by holding digital ads to the same regulatory standards as broadcast or print media, will drive faster action.
The second area is transparency of these platforms. While there is a continuous stream of money going towards them, very little about what these companies do is subject to any degree of third-party interrogation. Facebook has agreed to MRC (Media Rating Council) audit of its platform but this is only at stage two of three stages. Uber has declared that they will be more open on what data they hold on their users. There is still a lot of work to do and frankly, it is down to users of these platforms, from advertisers to customers, to demand more change.
Diversity; The advertising world much like many industries have been hit by the diversity debate, exposing bad practice across many companies. Despite the effective PR machines that surround them, it is clear that Silicon Valley companies have a severe diversity issue (indeed Wired UK did a feature on this their latest issue). As these companies and their platforms are used by billions, is it not about time they did more to address these issues? Let’s be honest with the volume of people who want to work for them, they are in a much better position to address diversity than some others. They should be leaders in this area and champion greater inclusivity.
Three areas that may change our view of the tech world - I for one would be delighted if these giants actually disrupted themselves in 2018 and addressed these issues. The world is watching and the shine has come off.