The digital revolution needs a trust revolution, tech leaders tell Davos

22 Jan 2015

Only with radical transparency and a public-private partnership with governments will trust be restored in the internet, tech leaders said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, today.

The rise of the internet economy is being countered by declining levels of trust as consumers are made wary about what digital companies are doing with their data and a never-ending litany of security breaches.

The issue of trust in a digital world was discussed by a high-powered panel at Davos today that included the inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee; Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer; CEO Marc Benioff; Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries; and the EU Commissioner for the Digital Economy Günther Oettinger.

Future Human

“The digital revolution needs a trust revolution,” said Benioff. “There has been an incredible shift in the technology industry, we have already moved into a world of cloud computing, social networks and mobility and we are about to move into the world of data science and artificial intelligence. We’ve gone from systems of record to systems of engagement and now we are about to move into a world of systems of intelligence.

“But none of these will retain form or have referential integrity unless the customers trust them.

“Trust is a serious problem. The reality is that we all have to step up and get to another level of openness and transparency. This isn’t going to be comfortable for everyone, especially the vendors but we need to open up and say if there is a problem with the data that there is immediate disclosure and complete transparency. That is not where we are at today.”

Mayer agreed with Benioff but said users need to have greater ownership of their data. “Personalised technology is better technology, a personalised internet is a better internet. We need to store data in the cloud but how do we get people more comfortable with that?

“We need transparency but we also need trace and control. Users need to own their data, examine it, take it with them and bring it to vendors they trust. They should have control over how they use the system and how their data is used.

“I think overall people have a difficult time making trade-offs because vendors are not being transparent enough or provide controls or choice.

“In mature industries we tell our governments what we look like to get a driving license or how much money we make to pay for civil services. People give this information up and get benefits,” she said, asking if the same is true for tech companies that glean that data and whether they give anything back.”

Fries pointed out that not all businesses are benefiting from the data, at least not yet. “We probably on average have access to 50bn hours of viewing, 7m customers and 30bn clicks a month and we do nothing with that data. We get zero revenue from all that data.”

However, he conceded Mayer’s point that there are organisations that are profiting from ordinary people’s data.

“Big data is big business for a lot of people,” Fries said.

Benioff said that the only real answer to re-establish trust is total disclosure from organisations to consumers about what they are doing with that data.

“I don’t know where my email is stored, what country it is in and probably neither does my service provider. But that’s going to change. We will need total disclosure.

“Enterprise cloud is a model for the consumer cloud.”

Asked if the trust issue was a train crash waiting to happen, Berners-Lee said that the key is in the motivation for why people build services for consumers to access.

“It is currently out of control. For example, if I download a Flashlight app for my iPhone, I am asked if I am willing to allow the app to access my calendar or contacts and that is done just two steal the data, build a profile of me ad these companies are nefarious and trying to build profiles of people and not help me in life.

“In the middle you have service providers who are trying to be useful like holding your sizes to help you buy clothes.

“And then in some places you actually have apps that are serving you completely.

“The old way of building apps and software to help people has been lost.

“But it will return because people are getting fed up with the situation.”

A smart and pragmatic revolution

Oettinger said that if a revolution is to happen it will need to be a smart and pragmatic revolution.

He said what is needed is a convincing global common understanding of trust and suggested a UN agency for data protection and security

He said that over-regulation will be counter-economic. “We need to come to a global understanding and a culture of balanced, pragmatic data protection. We need parliaments, industries and players to come together.”

However, Fries doesn’t think that’s going to happen any time soon. “I think it is going to take several years. Everybody’s intentions are good but after working in Europe for 25 years, getting 28 member states to agree is not an easy thing.”

Mayer suggested that rather than regulation what is needed is the creation of a beneficent marketplace as suggested by Berners-Lee where ultimately the most trustworthy companies and services with the most transparent policies will win the hearts and minds of consumers.

However, Benioff said he favoured the public private partnership spirit proposed by Oettinger.

“It is the right answer and it is achievable.

“We have already seen how the tech industry can get out of control. Entrepreneurs can go wild but we have to go back to Europe and Vivien Reding’s right to be forgotten concept.

“The right to be forgotten is not something that any entrepreneur in Silicon Valley was ready to implement because they wanted to keep that data forever, and for the government to come in and say no that is not right is the correct thing.

“That is the right role where governments need to be looking out for our rights and there is a safety net for industry.

“Those kind of things can only happen by partnership,” Benioff said.

Davos image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years