Our digital culture needs an overhaul amid watershed moment for Big Tech

The pandemic has accelerated trends in digital culture with privacy and surveillance even more at the fore

(FILES) This file picture taken on October 1, 2019 shows the logos of mobile apps Facebook and Google displayed on a tablet in Lille. Australia announced on April 20, 2020 it will begin forcing Google and Facebook to pay news companies for content, in a landmark move aimed at shielding traditional media from the tech giants' digital dominance. / AFP / DENIS CHARLET
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In the span of just a few weeks, our lives moved from the physical world to digital spaces.

The technology companies that have driven Wall Street for years - Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon - are more important to our daily lives than ever and are reaping the financial rewards. This week, with first-quarter earnings being reported, traditional industries are running out of cash while meanwhile, these giants are rebounding from the initial shock to markets and coming back stronger than ever.

The question now is, what will the lasting effect be of this tech boom on our shared digital culture?

This crisis has accelerated trends that were already present.

We have debated the possibility of remote work and increased automation for years. Covid-19 pushed us into action. But in the rush to adapt to our new digital existence, compromises are being made in terms of users’ privacy, the value of content and how we communicate with one another.

With massive and nearly immediate uptake in turning almost exclusively to the web to run our work and social lives, this new type of digital connection surfaces some thorny issues. In a highly unusual partnership, Apple and Google announced in April that they would work together to create a global contact tracing application for Covid-19.

The companies will add features to the popular Android and iOS operating systems that will allow certain applications to track the physical proximity between phones using Bluetooth radios. If a person with Covid-19 is registered in an application, a user would receive an alert if their phone came in close contact. Varying forms of contact tracing have been used in China and South Korea with great success but the potential for negative consequences is high with regard to negligent oversharing and reckless surveillance.

Experts are in unison that contact tracing can help fight the virus, but users will need to make a leap of faith in order for the apps to make a difference.

For these applications to work, they need buy-in from users. In China, that wasn’t a challenge because users were given no choice but to use the applications. In Western countries, however,  privacy experts are already raising alarm bells over potential issues with the system. If there was ever a time for the leading technology companies to demonstrate their commitment to the public good and data privacy it is now.

These types of privacy issues serve as a reminder of just how far we have to go in building a robust digital infrastructure that encourages innovation while protecting consumers. Given the surge in technology use during the crisis, we appear to be going backward when it comes to some basic issues of data privacy.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. We can use this crisis as an opportunity to draft the type of regulations and consumer awareness that are needed to reverse these trends. The first step is addressing the tradeoff between sensible regulations and a marketplace that encourages innovation.

In the US, the world’s most powerful technology companies have been able to grow free from meaningful regulations that specifically safeguard user privacy. By extension, users are more likely to sign up for new services without reading the fine print detailing how their data is used. Just ask yourself: Did you read Zoom’s terms and conditions before you signed up to use the service during Covid-19?

This approach needs to change and, thankfully, there are some precedents that can guide better policy. The EU, for example, has been working to establish new approaches to data that seek to safeguard users’ rights under the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR).

In 2018, the GDPR came into effect across the EU. The legislation is designed to modernise the laws that protect personal information on the internet. The GDPR forces companies to disclose how they collected certain pieces of user data and what they used the data for. Instead of creating different platforms for different countries, many companies simply updated their entire approach to data collection based on the GDPR for all users. While there have been some hiccups in implementation, the GDPR is widely regarded as a success for users since it gives people more control over their data and knowledge of how it is used on the internet.

We have all experienced the awesome power of technology during the Covid-19 crisis. We have also experienced some of the challenges that such impressive technology brings to the market. The Covid-19 crisis might be the perfect catalyst for a new approach to sensible technology regulations. Such change is critical as Big Tech is poised to emerge from Covid-19 even more dominant. This is a watershed moment for our digital culture. We can’t afford to miss this opportunity to change it for the better.

Mary Ames is the director of strategy at Xische, a venture consulting and communications agency and publishing house in Dubai