The pandemic lockdown has supercharged the already dizzying speed of technological change.
In six weeks we’ve come to accept a world where the office has become Zoom, the classroom Google and the theatre YouTube. Neighbours support each other through Slack channels. The dying say their farewells on FaceTime. And with little prospect of significant changes on the horizon, our hopes of getting back to a world lived in real life rest, it seems, on the effectiveness of an app.
After two years of techlash and a relentless drip-feed of wrongdoing from the tech sector, this crisis reminds us what a phenomenal enabler technology can be. But this hyper-dependence makes it even more critical to get to grips with the industry and ensure that technology is built and used responsibly.
To do that we need to listen carefully to what people want from the technology that shapes their day-to-day lives. Today Doteveryone publishes new research into the public’s digital attitudes. Based on a nationally representative survey conducted just before lockdown and focus groups shortly after it began, it finds the vast majority think the internet has made life better for them (81%) and – to a lesser extent – has been positive for society as a whole (58%).
But these benefits are overshadowed by distrust and disempowerment. Only 19% believe tech companies design their products with people’s best interests in mind. Over a quarter (26%) have reported experiencing a problem online but found nothing happened. In lockdown, this means people are reliant on a digital infrastructure to connect with the outside world, but have no real means to hold the companies who control it to account.
Last week Facebook announced the members of its new oversight board – an array of the global great and good who will pass judgement on dilemmas about when to take down content. But even if these wise owls prove sceptics wrong and turn out to be both independent and effective, they won’t fix the nuts and bolts of bad complaints systems.
The public wants clear and speedy resolution to everyday problems like scams, misinformation and bullying – problems that have been amplified by our pandemic-driven digitisation.
Tech companies must create accessible and straightforward ways for people to report their concerns and provide clear information about the actions they take as a result. By taking people’s concerns seriously, they will show they are serious about building trust.
In this crisis the tech sector has shown willing. Facebook, Google and Twitter have tried to wipe misinformation from people’s feeds while Uber and Deliveroo have sent their drivers to feed NHS workers.
But in showing that they are able, these companies demonstrate that, up till now, they have simply chosen not to behave responsibly.
Civic duty isn’t something tech companies should get to turn on and off when it suits them. They should be accountable to the checks and balances of a democratic society.
In Doteveryone’s research, 58% said the tech sector is regulated too little. And although there’s been a proliferation of policy ideas to tackle tech, so far there’s been little tangible impact on people’s lives. The Online Harms bill that the government promised would be world-leading has been pushed off first by Brexit and then by Covid-19.
Now is not the time to delay further. The government’s reliance on technology for its crisis response must not result in subservience to tech lobbying. We need a concerted, coordinated and urgent effort to regulate so that the benefits of technology are evenly shared in a post-pandemic world. Doteveryone recommends creating an independent Office for Responsible Technology to steward a regulatory system fit for the digital age.
The changes that are wrought in this period will be lasting. We need to make sure this transformation is driven by the needs of people, communities and planet – and not just the profit margins of the big tech companies.
Catherine Miller is interim CEO of Doteveryone, the responsible technology think tank