Industries in Depth

We don’t trust the internet. And it’s putting our digital future at risk

In the dark about data ... many of us are still reluctant to share personal information online Image: Jay Wennington

Andy Cheema
Project Manager, Shaping the Future Implications of Digital Media for Society
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Internet Governance

Digital technology is a defining feature of modern life. In 2016, there were 3.4 billion internet users and 3.8 billion unique mobile users. On average, people spend six hours a day online.

This may be just the beginning. New ways to plug into digital life – such as virtual reality and the internet of things – are arriving quickly, and promise a whole new level of sophistication: the race is on to teach software how to read our emotions, anticipate our actions and make decisions on our behalf. As such tools become increasingly embedded in daily life, people will need to trust the technologies and the companies behind them more than ever before.

This year, the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey that measures global levels of trust in institutions, revealed the steepest drop ever seen in the public’s trust in governments, businesses, media and NGOs.

Image: Edelman Trust Barometer 2016

Digital distrust

This broad trend of mistrust encompasses digital media, where it crops up in ways that will be familiar to some readers. For example, in a recent World Economic Forum survey, which examined a wide range of digital media services, platforms and technologies, over half of respondents said they did not trust their main providers to define fair terms and conditions around the use of their personal data.

One way to foster such trust is to empower end users to determine the fate of their data themselves. Yet for any given technology, 52% to 71% of respondents did not agree that it provides them enough control over their personal details. The top reason driving this belief: end users don’t trust that the controls work the way they are supposed to.

Such anxieties should not be taken lightly. According to another World Economic Forum study, ongoing digital transformations in consumer industries have the potential to create $10 trillion for businesses and society over the next 10 years. Of this, $900 billion could flow directly from leveraging consumer data to compete, sell and operate more effectively.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, cross-border data flows – which barely existed 15 years ago – accounted for $2.8 trillion of global GDP in 2014. Businesses hoping to realize the full potential of digitized economic activity will need a warm welcome from governments and individuals, and firms that differentiate themselves as responsible users of data may earn an outsized slice of the pie.

Doubts about data

The one thing threatening this opportunity is trust. For example, the spread of ad-blockers (software that can stop your browser from loading advertisements) undermines the viability of the digital advertising model that sustains many of the world’s most popular websites. Further, according to Forum research, 31% of US digital media users have avoided or stopped using a service altogether because it did not provide enough control over their personal data. In China, this number is 70%. In another recent study, by KPMG, 55% of people said they had decided against buying something online due to privacy concerns.

It can be tempting to dismiss these examples as mere growing pains: if people were truly concerned about their data, why do billions use digital media at all? Such reasoning tends to miss the point.

No matter how rapid the adoption of new technologies, the data suggest that lack of trust is a friction against even greater use. Further, many who appear to happily use online services may be unaware of the full extent of personal data that is collected, stored and used by companies – at least for now. And others may be reluctant users, unimpressed with the limited choices in some corners of the market today.

If left unsolved, today’s pockets of individual caution could coalesce into longer-term trends, such as cultural resistance to using certain devices, wider support for government regulation, and a preference for trust-driven alternatives.

We cannot afford to ignore the trust deficit. Instead of waiting for regulators and public opinion to catch up to technological developments, businesses should harness the opportunity to take matters into their own hands. A new, international, multistakeholder, self-regulatory body could fit the bill. Such a body would foster trust by establishing best practices for businesses to inform and empower end users, offering its members resources and tools to shorten the learning curve, and promoting accountability by proactively crediting compliant companies.

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One rule to bind them all

In 2015, a group of technology and privacy law experts from the EU and the US released a set of related recommendations. A number of the solutions offered, such as developing standard, easy-to-use data controls, new approaches to privacy notices, user-complaint mechanisms, and accountability programmes, could be most successful if coordinated by a single body.

There is precedent for self-regulatory bodies in traditional media industries – a prominent example is the voluntary film-rating system overseen by the Motion Picture Association of America. However, digital media tends to be more global than traditional media, and personal data and privacy matters are highly complex. As a result, any new self-regulatory body must also transcend borders and meaningfully engage non-industry stakeholders. The body would need to be a true partnership between industry, governments and civil society – all would support it, and no single interest would drive it.

Despite the proliferation of digital media products and services into nearly every aspect of daily life, the marriage between end users and industry is not always a happy one: mistrust and a sense of insufficient control can simmer beneath the surface. Proactive steps to rebuild trust will help to set the course for a healthy digital economy where individuals and companies alike are empowered to participate on their own terms. A new, international, multistakeholder body would have a clear role to play, but it is safe to say that this vision is a long ways away from fruition – and this is all the more reason to start acting now.

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