Social Dilemmas of Tech Brands

Words by Iain Ellwood
Date 2020-09-08

Have you ever read the entire terms and conditions from an online brand before clicking acceptance? My guess is the answer is no.

But why do normal people abjectly hand over their most personal data, and their families and business relations to a business to profit from? The answer is trust. We trust these firms to behave with the same ethics and behaviours that we have because we believe these brands fit with us. But is that wise?

The rise of platform brands like Facebook, WeChat, Apple and Amazon with their billions of customers has unleashed extraordinary experiences that have reshaped our lives and relationships with family, friends and business. But there is a darker side to this progress. Like any new technology in history, this innovation precedes legislation and social norms, with the consequence that acceptable social boundaries and behaviours are frequently pushed or bluntly ignored. This is the trust crisis that is exploding for tech brands right now.

Voices across all of society are uniting in the belief that these firms are no longer passive platforms but are highly influential actors in social justice. The more enlightened tech brands like Ericsson and NTT have long known that these complex social issues cannot be solved alone. They have aligned with the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals to highlight their contribution to society and continuously build trust with the broadest range of stakeholders. Meanwhile, other tech brands are only just starting to grasp their wider societal responsibilities beyond their product or service. These brands will need to rapidly adopt new ways of doing business to regain trust with an increasingly sceptical majority.

The first thing these companies need to do is demonstrate some humanity.

"Pretending they don't have a problem or are not responsible only reinforces their lack of empathy. No one expects everything to be always perfect, and people will forgive many things if it is honestly acknowledged and dealt with human kindness. That doesn't mean solving huge global problems like racial injustice or the digital divide, but they must engage in the conversation and endeavour to find better solutions. This might seem like the antithesis of what tech companies should do, but brands like Etsy have proven that you can successfully keep global commerce human."

— Iain Ellwood, Chairman, London

Behaving with integrity reinforces that tech firms understand complex social dilemmas, and they are clear on what they can and should do to create a better world for all. Integrity also means being consistent in how they act rather than opportunistically. Verizon, the US mobile phone brand recently removed its advertising from Facebook in response to Facebook's inaction over its stance on hate speech. While many other brands also did this as part of the "Stop hate for profit" movement, it is a central pillar of their code of conduct and not a one-off populist move. Some brands are going still further, working with Facebook to increase accountability and radical transparency. This kind of real-time traceability is something that tech companies should excel at and might yet be their salvation.

Actions speak louder than words. It's easy to say you are committed to privacy. But unless a company is willing to take difficult decisions to support that rhetoric then companies will be quickly exposed as untrustworthy. Apple's notorious refusal to help the FBI unblock a suspect's iPhone reinforced their willingness to act in line with their ethics whatever the context.

Trust - once automatically given, like when clicking T&Cs - has now become a critical issue and a grave threat to the very existence of tech brands. The old paradigm that humanity and ethics shrink profits is now inverted: tech with humanity accelerates profits because it builds enduring trust with customers and society.

First published in City A.M.