The investigation into Cambridge Analytica’s activities and allegations surrounding Facebook’s approach to data security has thrown the spotlight onto the social media giant over the past week.
The tech sector is facing ever-greater levels of scrutiny. Policymakers within government and parliament are adopting an increasingly sceptical attitude towards organisations operating across the industry. The days of David Cameron’s relatively relaxed and open-arms approach to welcoming tech big-hitters seem a long way away.
Last week’s revelations are merely the latest in a growing list of criticisms regarding how tech companies are often perceived to be operating. However, in centring on the use of individuals’ data, the issue has been brought into sharp focus in a way that other concerns do not necessarily cut through. Put simply, people care about how their data and information is used, who it able to get hold of it and through which means it was made available – many people will recoil at the idea of ‘harvesting’, however legal or otherwise it may be.
This is an issue that has steadily risen up the political agenda, with policymakers playing catch-up with rapid developments across the tech sector. Spearheaded by Damian Collins MP, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has adopted an assertive and pugilistic approach to confronting big tech companies. Notably, this culminated in the usual step of the Committee flying to the US to hold a Washington-based session as part of its ‘fake news’ inquiry.
In part, tech companies can rue the wider political inertia Britain is currently experiencing. With a Conservative minority government propped up by the DUP, the scope and current appetite for grand reforms (i.e. across the regulated utilities) is limited for the simple reason that any controversial is unlikely to pass into law.
In this environment, ‘easy targets’ that can attract criticism from a broad enough range of policymakers and stakeholders are sought out. At the moment, the tech sector is finding that it is one such ‘easy target’. With an energetic DCMS Secretary in Matt Hancock MP, someone who is keen to make an impression, the digital debate is one area of government that seemingly has momentum to drive it forward.
Of course, the tech sector itself is immensely diverse both in the size of companies operating and the services and products on offer. It will be important that the case for supporting - rather than undermining - innovative, disruptive and new technologies continues to be made (many people would argue that this is something that Hancock himself instinctively understands). Equally, companies will need to make their own case, to show the benefit they can bring and assuage the concerns of sceptical policymakers and the public.
Whether it’s an emerging cryptocurrency, a new room-sharing app or data-led and ‘smart’ infrastructure, the common challenge for businesses across this diverse landscape is building a sense of ‘responsible’ and engaged tech.