How can a technology company build its trust?

Globalization strategy via Corona Crisis era

Over the last two decades the technology sector has moved from corporate outsiders to the current position of industry heavy-weights that have overtaking banks and oil companies at the top of corporate rankings. Along with this rapid growth the general popular perception has shifted from enthusiastic support for an “idealistic upstart industry” to scepticism and concern over hidden agendas and secondary motivations linked to “surveillance capitalism” and the commodification of personal data. While this shift is taking place all over the “western world”, it is probably most pronounced in Europe which has heightened sensitivity due to historic abuses of power that involved high levels of surveillance. Compounding these developments is a more recent shift in geopolitical and economic thinking that has identified various ICT technologies as being of strategic importance and hence requiring a capacity for independence from foreign imports.

Against this background, any technology company seeking to gain the trust of European regulators must proceed from an acknowledgement that trust in an organization and its products/services depends not only on the level of excellence in the qualities of its products/services but also on an assessment that the intentions of the organisation are compatible with European values, as demonstrated by an open decision making process of its management with highest ethical standard.

To understand what it means for an organisation to operate in a way that is compatible with European values, it is necessary to reflect on the foundations and reasons for the existence of the EU. While often treated as primarily a mechanism for strengthening Europe’s economies the true foundational reason for its existence, as recognized in the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, is to advance peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe. Often referred to as an ongoing experiment in bringing together diverse nations to voluntarily cooperate in ever close union, its motto of “united in diversity” reflects the delicate balance that places consensus building at the centre of all decision making. Diverse states have diverse interests but the process of co-dependent co-creation among states at different stages of economic development strengthens the whole project.

How can a technology company embrace human rights based consensus building processes as a way of working and engaging with the EU? Fundamental to the consensus building approach is a co-creation mindset that accepts input from other parties as valued building block towards the construction of an international greater good. Compromises may have to be made which might divert the direction of technological development, but when doing so it is important to remember that technology is a tool to serve people and technological development that does not have societal acceptance does not fulfil this purpose.

Let us consider for instance the case of the GDPR legislation, which some tech companies perceive as stifling their ability to innovate. A product of many years of consensus building negotiations, GDPR is not designed to stifle technology innovation but rather to channel it into a new direction. It hinders business models that are based on surveillance capitalism, but it encourages innovation of alternative data processing technologies such as edge based federated computing. The push toward this new direction however is not an arbitrary choice but rather a response to the realization that increasingly accelerated growth along the previous path would lead to an unsustainable situation that would break society. That assessment of unsustainability of pre GDPR business models appears to be validated by the many nations that are following the EU’s example and introducing GDPR derived concepts in their own data privacy legislation, including California the home of Silicon Valley.

As a counter example we might look at the case of the push to get the global telecommunications standards setting organisation, the ITU, to adopt and promote New IP. New IP is the proposal for a new internet standard that would radically shift the way the internet infrastructure operates from the current decentralized model to a top down government-controlled model. In stark contrast to a consensus building approach, the proposal for New IP appears to be pushed purely on the basis of its technical merits for delivering greater connectivity capacity. Without engaging with the societal values that would be impacted by such a radical shift in the internet infrastructure, the dominant response to the New IP proposal among EU states is inevitably one of distrust regarding the underlying intentions of this proposal. To mitigate such trust issues, it would be necessary to engage in an open co-development approach that includes genuine amendments to the New IP technology to address the concerns expressed by stakeholders at all levels of society.

What are the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on societal consensus regarding technology and the role of tech companies? This crisis is unfolding rapidly with extreme and grave impact on governments and societies around the globe. One aspect that the crisis has revealed are the essential needed functions for providing safety and security for protecting the lives of all citizens from adversities (pandemics and natural disasters like earthquake, flood or hurricanes, etc). The current situation requires large scale infrastructure planning and coordinated dynamic responses at a rapid pace. The overwhelming speed and scale require coordination not only within the nations but with its neighbours including calls for support internationally. The post COVID-19 period will immediately need to flexibly and dynamically reconsider how societies can cope with all the other types of massive scale adversaries. This requires a shift from the neoliberal model in which all responsibility was transferred onto individuals, to a more socialist model in which the state takes responsibility for a duty of care towards its citizens through the building of large, flexible, dynamic and resilient infrastructure and maintaining / rebuilding / modifying the basic function of society according to different types of hazards. In the context of technology governance the shift in thinking around responsibility and duty of care had already started in the pre COVID-19 era, as evidenced by an increase push to shift regulatory compliance away from reliance on individual consent based methods towards greater emphasis on impact assessments. Trust in the intentions of tech companies will be assessed on the basis of how the products and services provided by the company contribute to the common good of all the citizens and society.

Current estimates on the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic suggest that full socio-economy recovery will likely take more than two years. The EU is currently preparing a 7-year economic recovery plan post-Corona era. During this period there will be three guiding principles that need to be embraced by any company that intends to establish itself as a trustworthy socio-economic partner.

  1. Embrace humility and support for the communities the company engages with (as partners, employees and customers) by paying taxes and investing in the community on the basis of supporting its sustainability and its development.
  2. Be a reliable engagement partner that delivers high quality products or services.
  3. Focus on societal demand driven solution provision, avoiding vanity projects that produce solutions in search of a problem.