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June 24, 2022

Toward data dignity: Let’s find the right rules and tools for curbing the power of Big Tech

The Ethical Tech Project's Privacy Advisory Board members Tom Chavez, Maritza Johnson, and Jesper Andersen advocate for building proactive solutions to the privacy problem - starting with privacy standards.

Originally appearing in Fortune on June 25th, 2022


If you’ve spent even a modicum of time scrolling through our biggest social media platforms in 2022, you’ve probably seen those funky looking, seemingly inexplicably popular images of apes as profile pictures. Non-fungible tokens, cryptocurrencies, and other high-minded reinventions of how we carry out transactions and function on the web have been a theme of the last year. Super Bowl ads vaulted these concepts onto our TV screens and into our minds. Along the same lines are the lofty ambitions of “Web3,” or the next phase of our internet. Adherents believe Web3 will restore democracy to the internet, put users back in charge through decentralization, and respect user privacy. In short, a web user’s utopia.

Some write off the cartoon ape .jpgs as irrational exuberance and modern-day tulip mania. We largely agree—it’s hard to see the intrinsic value of anything that can be “stolen” via the few keyboard strokes it takes to copy and paste. However, for those of us who care about ethical tech and the promise of respecting data dignity, we cannot laugh off the signal in the noise. Web3, whether or not it is indeed a utopia, is at least demanding that we take our privacy back.

In our first piece in our Toward Data Dignity series, we shared how we got to the point of enormous overreach by Big Tech; we followed up in our second piece by discussing why you should care about data control and privacy-by-design. It’s time that we do something about it.

For too long, Big Tech has attempted to conceal the truth that it chooses profits over the well-being of people through deflection, dissembling, and sleight of hand. Cynical invocations of “informed consent” are delivered based on a 24-page user agreement that the average user doesn’t understand or have the time to read. Technical decisions executed under the banner of privacy instead extend monopolistic control and erode competitive markets.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The last decade of online business strategy has had CEOs prioritizing scale and the ever-quickening growth of their monthly-active-user base to fuel monetization based on ad impressions. The incentives of the current system do not simply ignore privacy, the incentives are aligned to actively undermine privacy.

So now what?

As we enter the next phase of the web, we need a new set of incentives to encourage quality of experience for individual users, not just winner-take-all scale. The Hippocratic Oath compels medical professionals to do no harm. Technologists should similarly be compelled to consider the harm of the products they build. But we can’t stop there. We must also work to promote human flourishing, both individually and collectively.

Some technologists will gnash their teeth and tell you that we’re reaping what we sowed decades back at the birthing of the Internet. That the funk runs too deep; the essential architecture can’t be fixed. We reject that view, and so do all of the talented engineers and technologists we know. Machines didn’t make the mess we’re in; we did. We also know how to put the machines to work to fix it.

Enlightened new policies and legislation, building on blueprints like the European Union’s GDPR and California’s CCPA, are a critical start to creating a more expansive and thoughtful formulation for privacy. Lawmakers and regulators need to consult systematically with technologists and policymakers who deeply understand the issues at stake and the contours of a sustainable working system. That was one of the motivations behind the creation of theEthical Tech Project—to gather like-minded ethical technologists, academics, and business leaders to engage in that intentional dialogue with policymakers.

We are starting to see elected officials propose regulatory bodies akin to what the Ethical Tech Project was designed to do—convene tech leaders to build standards protecting users against abuse. A recently proposed federal watchdogwould be a step in the right direction to usher in proactive tech regulation and start a conversation between the government and the individuals who have the know-how to find and define the common-sense privacy solutions consumers need.

But new laws and regulations are not the whole solution. Rules and policies (the domain of humans) without mechanism (the function of machines) are all hat and no cattle—principles bereft of action.

Translating the work of legislators and regulators into mechanisms requires creating frameworks, standards, and specifications that technologists can easily embrace and deploy to translate policies and rules for data conduct into reality across all the systems and devices we use to conduct our digital lives. The Ethical Tech Project works to be that bridge between the rule-makers and engineers because advancing data dignity through ethical technology is the work of the collective. That’s why we are writing a comprehensive set of Privacy Standards for companies (and other organizations that touch user data) to ensure they are compliant with the principles of data dignity, data control, and privacy-by-design.

We aren’t the only technologists proactively seeking solutions. There are many developers currently building and deploying creative, common-sense solutions to combat the malign influences that have corrupted our use of popular platforms. Some of these mechanisms include software meant to ensure respect for data privacy consent orchestration across data ecosystems. We applaud the development of a “privacy stack,” off-the-shelf solutions that satisfy privacy standards. Technical standards create the market for privacy-by-design, and individual tech companies can satisfy demand with their point solutions.

We need to empower companies to reject the Sophie’s Choice too many of them currently perceive: Comply with data regulations and stagnate, or ignore them and grow. It’s feasible for businesses to respect the data rights of their consumers while still harnessing the power of data to grow their businesses.

We no longer have to sit idly by thinking that businesses that are collecting and monetizing our data are merely a part of the tech world’s inevitable progression towards more intimate encroachment in our lives. We can control these companies’ dominance and with the right rules and tools, we can create an environment where technology is supporting human flourishing, not holding us back.

Tom Chavez is co-founder and general partner of the startup studio super{set} and CEO and co-founder of the software company Ketch.

Maritza Johnson, Ph.D., formerly with Facebook and Google, is the founding executive director of the Center for Digital Civil Society at the University of San Diego and partner at Good Research.

‍Jesper Andersen is CEO and president of Infoblox, a provider of cloud-first DDI and DNS security services.

The authors are founding members of the Ethical Tech Project.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.