“The web at 30” tipping point: more fake news or a return to ethics?

The web has just turned 30. 

One of its original founding principle was its universality, and for the first 15 years, we all expected great things from this modern Wild Wild West: it brought humanity together in ways we never thought imaginable. It was all about constructive connections, regardless of geographical borders, religions, races, political affiliations, etc… 

And now, at the point where 50% of the world population will soon be online, we find this global village invaded with fake news, fake communities, fake profiles, that are affecting every aspect of our lives, from elections and politics, to personal relations, physical safety, and mental health…. Sadly, the future is not looking promising: the divide is increasing between people in our digital community that are always connected and the rest that are not. 

So how do we make sure that the web for tomorrow delivers for the other half the positive, constructive opportunities that it originally promised? What are the drivers to reverse the impact of all things fake and help the web evolve to become what the other half needs it to be?

There are probably several opinions on what these drivers are; here, I will highlight three that stood up for me: regulation, a change in attitude, and long-term profitability.

Regulation

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the increasing levels of bullying online and the impact that online abuse has on society at large, there is a lot of talk about regulating the internet. After all, if we can regulate sectors like nuclear power, air transport, banking or health, why not regulate a few lines of code? Technically, it’s doable, however the purists amongst us think that this goes against the original promise of the web, that wide open environment where we can freely exchange information.

This reaction is similar to an extent to how people reacted to GDPR: for quite some time before it came into effect, there were many voices warning about the negative impact it could have on how businesses could leverage data to offer benefits to consumers. However, several businesses saw an opportunity with GDPR, one where they can ensure consumer privacy and security, while providing them with better service.

And while the regulation itself seems restrictive to some businesses, others took it upon themselves to go the extra mile and over-deliver in terms of transparency and accountability when it comes to customer data.

Could regulating the web drive such reactions? We are now at a tipping point – unless we take immediate action, we will find ourselves in an uncontrollable chaotic environment. If that happens, the only option becomes draconian measures with governments monitoring everything we do in every aspect in our lives. But if we take action sooner, there could be a more measured, collaborative solution: after years of pushing back on regulations, some in the GAFA (aka Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple) tech giants groupare now calling governments to work together to introduce regulatory measures to help curb the negative trends. 

The cynics may say that the tech giants want to divert some of the accountability away from them, however, I see it as an acknowledgement that what the web environment morphed into is too big for even the tech giants to be able to moderate. 

However, no one party can set the rules for how the web should operate: there are various dimensions to consider, and government as well as non-governmental bodies will all need to weigh in to ensure the web is a safe and trustworthy environment. Governments can drive the effort to define the regulations, in partnership with experts from across the spectrum, including tech companies, social and ethical experts, academics, business, health professionals, etc… May be the Contract for the Web is the first step to making the web a better place?

This is definitely a space to watch, however, as with GDPR, regulation is not enough. What we also need is a change in attitude.

Change in attitude

With all the doom and gloom around us, we seem to be living in a dark age of sort, but there is a slimmer of hope all around, whether it’s the younger generations fighting to stop climate change, teenagers inventing solutions to remove plastic from oceans, creating more sustainable products, etc… 

With the web in particular, we are seeing an uptake in the number of organisations, governments, associations, individuals, etc… signing the Contract for the Web. Governments,tech giants, businesses and entities across the societal spectrum are all recognising the need to change, and the importance of living in an environment of equality, fairness, freedom and social integration where we all share a certain level of responsibility and accountability. Just because something can be done, it does not mean we should do and it’s critical that we stop and think about the ethical implications of what we are doing.

So does this mean we are seeing a return to ethics as a driving force?

It may well be: a new generation is taking over the building of the web, and going beyond the plain physics of how things are; they are taking matters with their own hands and creating code so technology works for the user; so they are adding humanity and ethics to how the web is developed, and making it again what it started as: a force for good.

More and more businesses are also setting up ethics committees to evaluate projects and ensure they meet ethical standards. We’ve also seen employees at Google and other companies stand up and demand that certain technologies be banned from use.

Being ethical is becoming something that everyone is thinking about, and starting to act on. And while this is just the start of the journey and we might not know which direction we are going, ethicsresponsibility and accountability are becoming key criteria in business decision making.

Long-Term Profitability

There are challenges to overcome on the journey to become more ethical, a key one is getting people to change practices that have been engrained in the way we do business for decades. So how can businesses make change happen?

Ultimately, it’s about the bottom line, and long-term profitability can be a very powerful motivator. But how can businesses achieve that profitability while managing change?

The capitalism that Adam Smith imagined was all about prioritising people over profit. However, many of the principles driving business decision making come from the 70’s and 80’s, and undermine pure capitalism: principles like shareholder supremacy or profit maximisation are often applied at the expense of ethics, resulting in businesses disappearing, mass lay-offs, and ultimately, unstable economies.

For businesses to survive and remain profitable in the long run, they need to adopt the original principles of capitalism. By focusing on people, being ethical and responsible, they gain the loyalty and support of staff who will be more willing to adopt the change and adapt to the new ways of working. This will also allow then to establish themselves as trustworthy organisations, ultimately gaining their customers’ trust and maintaining it. 

Ultimately, they become profitable, winning brands, that are there for the long run.

So where do we go from here? What does the future look like?

The one thing we know is that change is constant; going forward, we should only expect constant disruption. And while the future may look dark at the moment, there is pressure on governments and businesses to do good:

…. ethics are taking central stage in decision making; businesses must show responsibility when designing products and must think about how they can affect positive change to help build trust

…. regulation will help technology affect positive change, around how data is used, how information is checked and shared

And the new generation that is taking over is focused on doing good and ensuring they have a bright future to look forward to, which is essential for the web to become again what is started as: a universal open environment where people can connect safely, across geographical, social or demographic boundaries.

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May 7, 2019 by Adele Ghantous

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