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The answers to Big Tech’s problems lie in tech itself

The Hon Albert Isola

The Hon Albert Isola

Minister for Digital and Financial Services at HM, Government of Gibraltar

Policy makers, regulators, and tech giants must work together for the industry to flourish, writes The Hon Albert Isola, Minister for Digital and Financial Services, Gibraltar. 

Over the last 25 years, the technology industry has accelerated at a rapid pace, bringing with it innovations that have changed the nature of life in virtually every aspect of human society. In order to tap into the huge benefits and creative power of these developments, it is important that regulators and Big Tech work in tandem to solve the key problems facing the technology industry.

Regulators can learn much from the technology sector, which uses innovative data insights and processes of trial and error to facilitate progress and increase efficiencies, while companies can gain much from engaging with regulators and having a hand in the policy that will shape their future. We have reached an inflection point, where the continuation of technological innovation requires regulation in order to survive and thrive. Tech companies and policymakers must work together to address the current and future challenges facing the sector and strike a balance between fostering innovation while operating within strong regulatory frameworks. In this way, Regulators are better able to understand and mitigate risk in a meaningful way.

In recent years, policymakers have had to engage in a process of orienteering in a vast uncharted technological landscape. The pace at which the technology sector has developed has been swifter than governments’ capacity to understand and regulate it. As innovation and the adoption of new technology has progressed at unprecedented rates, regulators across the world have had to get to grips with the developments and their incumbent implications.

Whirlwind developments within Big Tech have changed the world as we know it, bringing about seismic shifts in our ability to capture and analyse data, engage with stakeholders, collect and consume news, and use machine learning and robotics to advance manufacturing. The internet brought with it the belief that public good will emerge through supposedly freer mechanisms of information and access. This has not all been positive and we are catching up with fundamental issues caused by this new and global marketplace accessible to all. As a result, some technology companies have been historically circumspect about interventions that could shackle their creative freedom and capacity to grow.

The tendency of the tech industry to date has been to pursue rapid growth wherever possible, collecting as much user data as is available. Exploring the implications and issues attached to this has not been a high priority and it is only now, in the age of analytics and data-driven economies that we are beginning to reflect. When left unchecked, this endless ability to harvest data and influence culture and the economy can be hugely harmful, highlighting issues of privacy, free expression, and human rights. In recent years we have seen accusations of a totalitarian monopoly of power thrown against the likes of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google. Leaders of the tech world have stood in front of Congress accused of wielding the kind of power that was last seen “in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons”.

With regulatory pressure mounting, Europe has indicated its aims to firmly police Big Tech and regulate data privacy and security across the industry. So far this has seen far-reaching protections such as GDPR put in place, while the proposed introduction of the Digital Service and Digital Markets Acts will aim to place further guards on Big Tech’s power. In the United States, the introduction of CCPA has similarly aimed to place control of personal data back into the hands of users. What's more, the appointment of antitrust activist Lina Khan to newly elected President Biden’s cabinet indicates that the United States is gearing up for stricter regulation of the tech sector.

But responsibility for this does not lie with Big Tech alone. In order for effective regulation to succeed, policymakers must also step up to the mark and aim to gain a greater understanding of the key trends and issues that the industry faces. Without this knowledge, they are likely to miss key opportunities to carve out solutions, as was the case when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg came before Congress in 2018.

When constructing policy, regulators should emulate the testing model employed in the technology sector, embracing a strategy of learning and openness to new ideas, rather than seeking to make all-encompassing, final decisions. The growing digital space can only be sustained if tech leaders and regulations facilitate a symbiotic relationship of conversation and data exchange. An ability to pre-empt issues and develop balanced strategies for addressing them will rely on this relationship.

In the same vein, Big Tech must take the opportunity to be involved in the regulation of the sector by actively seeking to contemplate and rectify issues surrounding privacy and competition while they innovate. They must strive to consider the broader implications of their business models and products, engaging in an evolving process of management and open engagement with policymakers. The rules of the game are changing and while the future looks bright, it is only when policymakers, regulators, and tech behemoths collaborate that we will see the industry really flourish.

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