Getting to Tech Woke

As public trust in social media wanes, agencies must look at their own policies, as well as those of the platforms they use.

If you’ve ever written a policy statement on, say, privacy that nobody has ever read, you’ll be excused for enjoying the schadenfreude of this moment as Facebook, Google, Twitter and other technology platforms face scrutiny on both sides ofthe Atlantic.

You may have enjoyed the sight of Mark Zuckerberg wearing a suit — two days in a row — as he tried to explain himself during congressional hearings that generated little heat, and even less light.

But that feeling of joy from the “tech-lash” may be short lived. New but long-planned European privacy rules are pivoting the policy debate from Washington, D.C., to that unseen foreign shore. The irreducible core of the European privacy rules is the requirement to provide opt-in consent to share personally identifiable information, which includes the right to withdraw consent.

That is appealing to many users who have begun to reject the proposition that they pay for free services using personal data as currency. That’s enough to rock your business model. “However,” as fellow Government Technology
columnist Daniel Castro reminds us, “sharing data on Facebook is a feature, not a bug.” Castro, who is also the vice president of the non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), cautions that becoming even vaguely European would “stymie the U.S. digital economy.”

ITIF and other like-minded organizations are not wrong when they insist that we have to define the problem correctly if we are going to find a suitable solution. That includes figuring out who should be held accountable for what, and where current laws (or their enforcement) fall short.
ITIF also advocates for giving the private sector a wide enough berth to develop and prove out solutions to the problems of data abuse. The uneasy compromise we seem to be moving toward is regulation if necessary, but not necessarily regulation.

In the meantime, public agencies have a responsibility to take a fresh look at not only their own terms of use, but also those of the platforms they use in serving their publics. Are the two compatible? If you cannot change the providers’ terms, are you willing or able to change your own? Or stop using the platform in favor of another that is more consistent with policy priorities and values?

Values are front and center in the findings of an international longitudinal study of public trust. In its ninth annual Trust Barometer, the global communications and advisory firm Edelman has documented dramatic shifts in public opinion. The public has been whipsawed by scandal and the dizzying speed of technological and societal change.

Not surprisingly, trust in social media has dropped 11 percent among the general population in the U.S. The number plummets by 28 percentage points among college-educated respondents, or what Edelman calls “the informed public.” Emerging technologies are also suspect. Compare a trust rate of 75 percent in technology overall — itself down 19 percent among the informed public in the last year — to significantly lower rates for the Internet of Things (63 percent), artificial intelligence (56 percent), self-driving vehicles (50 percent) and blockchain (49 percent).

Edelman helpfully puts numbers to both the tech-lash and the beginning of what could become an era of being “tech woke.” More than three-quarters of respondents tell Edelman that technology companies should take a larger role in education (79 percent) and workforce preparation (76 percent). Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents believe technology companies contribute to the greater good — even as trust in government fell 14 percentage points in the last year.

After a decade-long dalliance with what entrepreneur, Internet critic and author Andrew Keen calls “the cult of the amateur,” voices of expertise are regaining credibility. Technical experts, economists, policy analysts and entrepreneurs now register credibility levels of 50 percent or higher. CEOs recorded a seven-percentage-point gain since 2017.

The public we serve is looking for someone to lead at this disruptive moment. Edelman CEO Richard Edelman says two-thirds of the population wants business leaders to act and not wait for government in ushering in an era of being woke. But they cannot get there on their own. The necessary and often thankless job of translating intent into a framework for moving forward falls to those in public service. 

Lauren Harrison is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 10 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.