The CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg made his new year’s resolution pretty public.
In January, he told the world his personal priority was: fixing Facebook.
In March, as outrage about Facebook’s failure to protect users’ data metastasised phenomenally, the firm’s share price plummeted a whopping $45bn – in just one week.
That’s roughly five times the amount Australia invests in its public schools each year.
It shows how share markets actively factor in social disapproval of corporate negligence.
Because that’s exactly what Facebook has done – been negligent in responding to growing concerns about how it is valuing user data – from the viewpoint of an ordinary user.
Facebook certainly valued that data – but the value was largely one sided: earned by itself and the firms that paid for the data.
It’s worth noting that the revenue from that data has been used to pay for Facebook’s efforts to run and develop its site without charging those same users for access.
However, there was a lot of change left over and the public is holding Facebook to account for it.
Believing Facebook is the only culprit, or the only tech firm to face such an extraordinary public backlash, overlooks a serious threat confronting the wider sector.
While in times past we’ve marvelled at the opportunity opened up by tech, that sentiment has dulled.
Local tech leaders need to recognise that the biggest challenge facing them is one of legitimacy.
I say that not as a trenchant, unbending critic – but as someone who believes that tech can improve lives, build better communities.
In November I spoke to the Innovation Aus’ Open Opportunity Forum where I focussed on the threat posed by a belief that was forming that technological advancement profits a few at the expense of many.
This is an exceptionally dangerous and corrosive attitude that will eat away at the standing of the sector.
Want proof? Look at the way Silicon Valley has been challenged publicly.
“Dear Silicon Valley, In case you haven’t noticed, you’ve changed from hero to villain…you’ve moved from icon to joke,” wrote founder and executive director of Village Capital Ross Baird in the widely read online publication Tech Crunch.
How did his happen so spectacularly, so soon?
Obviously, change ruffles feathers. It’s sometimes the case that someone goes through pain when someone else celebrates gain.
While deep down the public understands no-one can resist change, they hope that the people affected worst by it are looked after.
And seeing firms gloat about the money they’ve made, while a bike riding food deliverer loses his job complaining about his working conditions is not something the public will tolerate for too long.
ON THE BIG ISSUES…
As former adviser to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg then Uber, Bradley Tusk advised the tech sector: “You can’t keep eating the world without (expletive) people off.”
The problem is, whether here or overseas, tech has fallen on the wrong side of public policy challenges: be it tax, or privacy or competition law.
Instead of “evangelising” and refusing to hear wrong, the tech sector needs to acknowledge those concerns and meaningfully respond.
It’s hard to see that happening given the modus operandi of major tech firms: which is to rarely engage in public comment, to shield their public leaders from view.
Up until last week, few would have known Facebook had an Australian head of operations – until his face was splashed across the pages of our national newspapers.
How many times have you seen this written in response to an approach made by a media outlet to a major tech firm: “(insert company name) did not respond to inquiries.”
Many in the tech sector feel they don’t need to engage publicly or politically. They figure that their success will speak for itself and there’s no need to sully themselves by interacting.
But they will engage if they’re upset with a decision of government, driven by public furore. Too late.
NOT ALL BAD
Some have tackled these issues head on and begun to talk about the issues that matter to average Australians.
Under the leadership of Jason Pellegrino, Google Australia’s chief, you’ve seen the firm talk about the need to prepare for the challenges of automation.
Microsoft Australia’s Steve Worrall has urged the nation to invest in its human capital, tackling skills shortages and ensuring our young are trained up for the jobs of the future.
They talk ahead of time, they talk about the benefits they’re bringing ordinary Australians and businesses.
Importantly, they demonstrate value that is not held just by investors but is shared with the community.
WHAT CAN TECH DO?
Tech can’t think they can just weather the storm – they need to deal with their problems head on and show they’re serious about this.
Demonstrating that they understand that privacy matters – it’s not a tradeable commodity that can ignore legitimate user concerns about end use.
Demonstrating that they’re not following the dictum of leading figures in the US tech community who sprout “competition is for losers”.
Demonstrating that they understand tech will change jobs and that people are seeking reassurance they will be looked after.
Demonstrating they’re genuinely committed to embracing a wide range of talents and viewpoints within the tech tent – that means being seriously committed to diversity and not just using it as a marketing buzzword.
FUTURE JOBS: THE BIG ISSUE
Recognising the community concern about the impact of technology on people’s lives and jobs is crucial.
While people in tech are likely to love their jobs and be able to hold on to it for the foreseeable future, the people that are affected by their tech might have a different view.
For instance, telling people that tech creates as many jobs as it takes away is one good approach – but you can’t rely on that alone.
Let’s face it: not too many people who’ve had their job taken from them by an AI equipped robot are necessarily leaping to become coders or UX experts.
And expecting people to accept insecure work with eroded pay and conditions as a trade off for being innovative and tech savvy is not sustainable either. We should always look to widen the benefits generated by change.
It’s hard to think of any major tech player with standout active recruitment programs or skills development approaches that draw in kids from suburban or regional areas of Australia.
While complaining about skills shortages why have they not developed ICT traineeship pathways, like those increasingly embraced in other parts of the world, to skill up local talent from our suburbs?
Bringing more young people from our suburbs and regions into the tech fold is the hands down best advertisement for the value of the sector to the economy.
And instead of dragging those young people into the cities for jobs – it would be great to see tech sector work with its supporters in regional communities to see economic opportunity spawn beyond city limits.
We should place a higher ambition on international tech players that open up their doors in Australia.
Instead of seeing us as an outpost to extract sales from, give back by investing in local talent and local economic opportunity.
Some tech players do that – they hire talent with great skills in tech or engineering. They’re working locally on products that will be used across the globe.
Many others simply set up a sales and marketing presence here and that’s it.
Australia used to be a colonised outpost. It shouldn’t tolerate a revival of that long discarded status.
GOVERNMENT’S GOT A JOB TOO
Solutions can’t rest with the tech sector though – government has a role too.
It needs to show that it’s thought about the challenges and are prepared to develop policy solutions to address them.
Solutions for how to value and protect data generated by tech, and solutions about how tech players use that data: for example, is it used in a way that undermines competition laws at the expense of consumers and rival businesses?
About skilling up current and future workers to ensure their skills fit a modern workplace affected by technological change.
On most of these fronts, there’s little evidence to show the Turnbull government is acting concretely.
For example, not only has it done little about the future of work – but it has actively cut investments in skills development across schools, vocational and tertiary education.
Indeed, the Turnbull Government has turned out to be all show and little substance on innovation. If it can make an announcement that generates a headline, that’s the extent of its support.
Any attention it gives now is in response to 12 months of persistent focus by Labor on this issue.
If you compare the respective records of the major parties on this issue over the last few years, I’d argue Labor has demonstrated consistent application – leading, not retreating.
And we’ll continue to do so because we see that the way Australians live and work can benefit from this enormously.