Robert Phillips is the co-founder of Jericho Chambers, a progressive strategy consultancy and think tank. He was formerly President and CEO, EMEA, of Edelman, the world’s largest Public Relations firm. He was also Global Chair of its Public Engagement and Future Strategies Group. He is recognised as an authority on the future of communications.
The march of technology brings with it awesome power but also great responsibility. The opportunities for a new, digital democracy and a better society are manifest but the revolution is not without its darker side: fake news, addiction, tax avoidance, election fraud, turbo-consumption, “surveillance capitalism”, cybercrime, market monopolies, terrorism and more besides. The “techlash” – brought to a head this week by the revelations swirling around Cambridge Analytica and Facebook – is a response to much of this.
Advancing technology spearheaded by the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook is often lauded without consideration for the social production of much of the data that drives this sector and creates its value.
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Phillips argues that ultimately, it is responsible leadership which is led by the needs of citizens and not by profit motives and Silicon Valley’s domination, nor by political agendas and interests.
It’s about getting ahead of the tech. instead of, like government, always being way behind.
Phillips argues that data protection or privacy is a fundamental human rights issue.
Whilst it has become a common joke that no one reads the Terms & Conditions on any agreement, happily signing away our privacy and rights in return for something free or a tempting “special offer”. However it is important to question who exactly is collecting and harvesting our data – and who stands to profit from it.
Customer loyalty was initially openly transactional – signing up for supermarket club-cards meant that the supermarket knew what deals to offer us and when. However this exchange has rapidly become more sophisticated with data harvesters increasingly less interested in giving us something back in exchange for our information. And yet we are still unclear on what is really going on.
In parallel, there is of course much noise around “fake news” and/or the excuse perpetrated by the tech corporates that they are platforms, not media owners. We argue that this is a false and ultimately irresponsible distinction – which may be why support for this argument is beginning to recede. To borrow from philosopher Tony Judt, this is less the “post-truth” age than a “post-ethical” one. An ethical re-set would be most welcome and a key step towards improving levels of trust.
As part of this reset, Phillips argues that a Consumer Protection Act would mean that tech corporates sign up to Terms & Conditions, based on citizen rights – returning the power to the people.
Governance: new models required
This bids the question of whether these supposed “tech” issues are really purely tech related, or if we should consider them fundamental governance issues that concern us all.
If we accept that we are our data, it means that ultimately the state’s responsibility to keep us safe, it is also government’s responsibility to keep our data safe.
In other words, we have a right as citizens of a democracy to expect the same protection of our digital selves as we expect of our physical selves. Tech is not different – except insofar as legislators are dazzled, ignorant and prey to populism. The digital citizen is a citizen and vice versa. And the digital citizen, currently, is wandering around the equivalent of an 18th century turnpike, surrounded by what can feel like thieves, marauders and conmen, with a number of the tech corporates seemingly effectively out of public and social control.
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