Finding a Way Forward for Government and Big Tech Firms

Companies like Facebook and Google have ushered in some positives for individuals, communities and governments. But we still have a responsibility to ask whether they're serving the public interest.

by / December 2019

It’s time to negotiate a new relationship between big tech and government. 

It has been a tough couple of years for big tech. Now that we have moved past the wonder of things like having supercomputers in our pockets and sensor-equipped streetlights, we’ve uncovered some of the potential downsides we didn’t realize were part of the deal. Yes, the benefits of new tech are many, for individuals, communities and the larger goal of good government.

But what’s also come into focus is the sometimes-wide chasm between the big technology providers behind so much of this progress and the public interest.

Exhibit A: Facebook doesn’t think it should have to make sure political advertisements on the world’s biggest social media platform are true. This, following continued revelations around the intentional manipulation of voter sentiment by foreign interests pushing their own agendas in U.S. elections via Facebook.  

Then there’s the algorithmic bias being uncovered as testing and use of facial recognition technologies grow, especially by law enforcement. Turns out if the images being used to teach the algorithm are skewed toward white people, the technology will be considerably less effective at recognizing people of color. And at press time, new algorithmic flaws were also bubbling to the surface relative to the newly launched Apple credit card amid numerous examples of significantly higher credit limits being given to men than women with the same or better credit scores.

Meanwhile, north of the border in Toronto, Sidewalk Labs, owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has gotten a lot of attention for its plans to develop a proof-of-concept-style neighborhood from scratch, intended as a proving ground for a smart community with scores of advanced technologies at its core. We wrote about the project — and the controversy surrounding it — in our September issue.

The vision for Waterfront Toronto is grand, including such enticing features as pneumatic garbage collection, snow-melting sidewalks, responsive traffic signals that favor pedestrians, dynamic curb spaces that adjust to changing needs depending on the time of day, a system of underground freight delivery, advanced power and stormwater infrastructure, etc. But at the heart of Sidewalk Labs’ plan is the fact that the community would be data-driven. And that raised privacy alarm bells.

After much negotiation and months of public discourse, the agency in charge voted to move forward at the end of October, but on a much more limited footprint than Sidewalk Labs wanted. In addition, important safeguards were established, including requiring that the data collected be treated as publicly held. Several months of evaluation work remain before the project can proceed, but these compromises encourage the idea that big tech can be tamed and channeled for the good of communities.

A recent New York Times editorial underlines this idea that government can experiment with new technologies while effectively looking out for the citizens it serves:

“Toronto’s experience with Sidewalk Labs to date shows that cities do not need to give up government’s responsibility to prioritize the public interest while pursuing urban innovation.”

Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

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