Following the recent data scandals, it's only a matter of time before governments regulate the tech industry. But Natasha Mudhar, CEO of Sterling Media, argues that there is a way to avoid it hampering the industry’s growth
Like any new field of discovery, it is only a matter of time before standardisation and regulation becomes the norm for practice. From social media tools to IOT devices, the last decade of using internet-based services in our everyday lives has given rise to a lot of different services. And now the exploratory phase wherein companies scouted users has given way to an established market with prolific user bases. Facebook has acquired over two billion users, banks interact though text bots and your blender communicates with your phone: the robots have risen and your data fuels them. Before we are quick to pin a dystopian future, it is only valid to understand how this new age of data driven economy is redefining our world.
Innovative products and services have gained traction in recent years, especially for their cross platform availability and easy access digital experience. Companies such as Revolut, Uber, Xendpay, Airbnb and Obikes have all developed into massive giants in their respective sectors because they precisely offer this ease of service – data driven personalised experience. But when there is a massive personal digital footprint left behind by users on any internet connected devices or products, it is only time before a standardisation is needed to establish the industry norms for usage and handling of customer information.
There is no doubt that self-regulation is a form of participatory democracy. When it works, it is the best option by far, but when it fails everyone – in particular the public, –suffers the consequences. However, self-regulation is a ticking time bomb – you either lead your way in establishing it as an industry best practice and act on it sincerely or loose the first mover advantage and get ready to embrace government intervention. At a time when trusts in many businesses are at an all-time low it’s vital that companies act fast on establishing guidelines for self-regulation and lead the industry best practices, should they opt for the former.
The recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal brought the debate on user data privacy to the spotlight, involving the corridors of governments, concerned about the potential misuses in political affairs. With Cambridge Analytica misusing private information of Facebook users, the company – and in particular its CEO Mark Zuckerberg – were accused of deceit as they allowed this information to be accessed by a third party entity without the consent of the users.
Under the public scrutiny Zuckerberg faced, he conceded the unthinkable – being open to government-led industry regulation, to prevent incidents such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal from occurring in the future. His testimony perhaps startled tech companies across the US, who may also be subjected to heavy handed government measures, potentially curbing the free reign they are currently enjoying.
Europe holds the answers
Things aren’t too bad in Europe, when compared to the US. Of course, the threat of Brexit and right-wing populism have crept through the continent but the region is still a pillar for upholding human rights, including data privacy issues. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a template example of the seriousness Europe takes empowering citizens to take control of their personal data and to simplify the regulatory environment for international business by unifying the regulation within the EU. The seriousness for businesses, both local and international, operating with the EU is highlighted by the fact that the GDPR comes at the cost of a strict data-protection compliance regime with severe penalties of up to 4% of worldwide turnover or €20m, whichever is higher.
The GDPR law comes at a time when digital rights are in the forefront of technological debate, addressing the relation between digital footprint and economic value. The law is also in contrast to the free capital market in high tech based economies such as the US, which thrive on this digital economy. Europe on the other hand has brought together a set of normative guidelines, which works at a midpoint between data economy and user control – an option Mark Zuckerberg should consider. Given the fact that he agreed ‘Europe seems to gets things right’ in his testify under oath to the congress, it is certainly a stamp of the highest approval.
Being ahead of the game
Beyond all the normative advantages in adopting self-regulation, there is also the advantage of being the leaders in the industry. If organisations, however big or small, are to undertake a strict protocol of standardisation, they not only benefit from better public trust and repute, they also stand to be pioneers in their respective fields. Government regulation, albeit difficult and delayed, is inevitable and organisations that adopt their own standardisation practice ahead of a government intervention would stand to benefit from the first mover advantage, capable of easily fine-tuning their already established practices to meet the standards, instead of starting afresh. For example, if Facebook had already established a GDPR type program for handling user data, they would have found the Cambridge Analytica issue a breeze at source. The company is currently scrambling to work its policies and comply with regulatory expectancies. How easier would it have been had they self-regulated?