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Seven New Year’s resolutions for Big Tech in 2019

2018 was a no good, very bad year for Silicon Valley. Here’s some of the things tech giants should commit to do next year to avoid a repeat performance.
December 31, 2018
Ms Tech

Every January, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, likes to go public with a resolution for the year ahead. His 2018 one to “fix Facebook” has clearly been an epic fail, given the stream of privacy scandals that have dogged the social-media behemoth over the past 12 months. Other high-profile tech companies, including Twitter and Google, have also found themselves under fire again this year.

The backlash—or techlash—is going to roll on through 2019, and it could get even worse unless the tech giants resolve to:

1. Do a far better job of protecting people’s data

This primarily applies to Facebook, which seems constitutionally incapable of keeping users’ information out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have it. In spite of the Cambridge Analytica affair, which broke in March and ended up with Zuckerberg being hauled in front of Congress to explain what went wrong, Facebook continues to leak personal data like a sieve. But it’s not the only Silicon Valley firm with an issue: in October it emerged that Google’s social network had exposed the data of half a million users because of a security flaw.

If big tech companies haven’t done so already, they should conduct a top-to-bottom audit in 2019 to ensure that private information can’t be exposed by their own apps, by third-party apps, or by any other means. In the US, they should also support efforts to create a national data privacy regime inspired by Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which came into effect this year and has tough financial penalties for offenders. If their lobbyists try to water down any new US regulations, it will be a clear sign the companies aren’t serious about keeping this particular resolution.

2. Fight harder against hate speech and fake news

This year provided yet more evidence of the way in which social media can be manipulated to cause violence around the world. Facebook admitted that it had allowed posts that incited violence against the Rohingya population in Myanmar, and its platform was temporarily banned in Sri Lanka because of concerns it was being used to whip up tensions there. In the US, Twitter tergiversated over whether to take down the accounts of far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his InfoWars outlet but finally did so.

There were some encouraging signs that tech companies are finally starting to take bolder action against fake information. They will rely heavily on better algorithms to help them police content in 2019, but this approach has inherent limitations. And it’s about to face an even stiffer test with the advent of AI-generated fake videos and audio files. These “deepfakes” promise to make it even harder to decide what information to trust. Social-media firms will need to commit significant resources and know-how to help tackle the deepfake threat next year.

3. Do more  to promote workforce diversity

Workers in Silicon Valley are still overwhelmingly male and white or Asian. Big tech firms like Twitter, Facebook, and Google have pledged multi-year efforts to boost diversity, and some regularly break out employment figures by race and gender to track progress.

But the rate of change still feels glacial to many, including an African-American former executive at Facebook who recently made public a memo he wrote accusing the company of “failing its black employees and black users.” In response, Facebook said it’s committed to doing all it can to be a truly inclusive company. Civil rights groups and the media will be watching it and other Silicon Valley firms closely in 2019 to see if they live up to their diversity promises.

4. Pay a fair share of taxes

All companies try to minimize the amount of money they hand over to tax authorities, and big tech firms are no different. But public outrage at their efforts to avoid taxes through complex, globe-spanning webs of accounts has grown as their profits have soared. Countries including the UK and France are now pushing for new digital taxes on companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook. To stop the techlash from turning into a global taxlash too, tech giants should commit in 2019 to start unwinding their controversial tax-avoiding arrangements.

5. Stop using PR firms to smear critics

This resolution should be easier to make following revelations by the New York Times earlier this year about Facebook’s use of a company called Definers Public Affairs. The PR firm sought to discredit some Facebook critics by insinuating that they were financed by groups related to George Soros, a well-known investor who is frequently the target of anti-Semitic attacks. It was also behind the publication of dozens of articles attacking Google and Apple for unsavory business practices.

6. Curb anticompetitive instincts

There’s nothing Silicon Valley loves more than a monopoly, and plenty of tech giants have built up dominant positions in their markets. Monopolies aren’t necessarily harmful to consumers or the broader economy, but big tech firms have abused their dominance to unfairly crush potential competitors. This year, antitrust officials in the European Union hit Google with a $5 billion fine for alleged anticompetitive behavior; the company is appealing.

The case is yet another sign of growing concern about Big Tech’s market power. This isn’t limited to Europe: US antitrust officials have also said that they will be taking a harder look at tech firms’ behavior. Silicon Valley’s tech giants should tread far more carefully in 2019 if they want to avoid more legal headaches.

7. Keep reminding themselves of their resolutions

As anyone who’s made New Year’s resolutions knows, it can be really hard to keep them. Having a regular reminder helps, so the bosses of Silicon Valley’s biggest firms should resolve to find novel ways to keep their commitments top of mind.

Here’s a suggestion for Facebook’s Zuckerberg. In 2009, with the world economy in turmoil, his resolution was to wear a tie every day as a reminder that Facebook needed to get serious about developing a sustainable business model. In 2019, one of his resolutions should be to wear a tie and a suit to work every day as a reminder of the deeply serious issues Facebook now needs to fix. He has, after all, had plenty of practice wearing the combo at congressional hearings into Facebook’s failings.

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