CES’ “Tech and Techlash in the 21st Century” panel began with a single question: “Has internet been good for society?” According to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, only 70% of American adults say “yes” — 6% fewer than in 2014. This decline, or “techlash,” is a growing concern within the tech industry, with consumers, elected representatives, and tech companies alike grappling with the risks versus rewards of an increasingly online world.
Adam Kovacevich, Director of Public Policy at Google, said that this issue stems from the growing focus on ways in which technology is abused; people like how technology allows them to access information and connect with others, yet they’re starting to ask more questions about where they want technology to end and their humanity to begin. This sentiment was reflected across the panel, with Sasha Moss, Federal Affairs Manager of R Street Institute, claiming that we’ve taken away the human stories of how tech has positively impacted our lives, choosing instead to focus on its negative implications.
These concerns, the panel agreed, are well-founded; from media bias to data breaches, the failures of tech giants are perhaps more visible than ever. However, the panel agreed that part of the reason for such widespread techlash is a simple lack of education — both for consumers and for policymakers who decide how these companies are regulated.
The panel was often divided on the idea of regulation in online spheres, but they all agreed that Congress is simply not educated enough to make those complex decisions. Moss cited a shortage of subject matter experts and a lack of diversity as huge roadblocks in judiciary committees; she also said that policymakers often fail to listen to or trust their constituents when it comes to tech.
However, things are not hopeless: Michael Petricone, SVP of Government and Regulatory Affairs at the Consumer Technology Association said that the wave of young, digital-savvy representatives getting elected will allow for a much more nuanced and informed take on issues of privacy and regulation. Now that lawmakers are becoming more familiar with tech, they can open the door to more productive conversations with constituents and the tech companies themselves.
Outside of D.C., the panel members encouraged big companies to be more transparent and to educate people about new tech. “The consumer privacy debate will be better if people can identify the things they’re concerned about,” Kovacevich said. “It’s essential that companies provide transparency for consumers who want it.” Industries, he claimed, shouldn’t resist the hard questions about technology’s role in society. Rather, in order to provide better services, they should engage in the debate for how best to solve those questions.
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