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British public largely distrustful of technology companies, says report

High levels of distrust in the motivations of technology companies and a lack of meaningful influence over their behaviour has left the British public feeling digitally disempowered, says Doteveryone report

The British public do not trust technology companies and want to have more influence over their behaviour, according to a study by responsible technology think tank Doteveryone.

The People, power and technology 2020 report found that people feel digitally disempowered, even as their understanding grows about technology and the way their personal data is collected and used. But the survey suggested that the general public is increasingly resigned to the way the tech firms operate.

“Two-thirds (67%) say people like them ‘don’t have any say in what technology companies do’. Half (50%) believe it’s ‘part and parcel of being online that people will try to cheat or harm them in some way’. And a third (32%) say they would like to use technology products that better reflect their values, but that these are not currently available,” said a report on the findings.

It added that the feelings of resignation are accompanied by high levels of distrust, with only 19% of respondents believing tech companies are designing their products and services with their best interests in mind.

These sentiments have been compounded by a lack of recourse available to people when confronted with harmful content or outcomes online, with 26% saying nothing happened when they reported experiencing a problem.

A further 53% said they wanted more straightforward procedures for reporting tech companies, and 55% wanted more avenues through which they could seek help, showing there is a clear appetite to make issues easier to resolve.

“What’s frustrating from our point of view is to see how, although understanding has grown, that it is not enabling people to shape their online experiences – so people get how it works, but can’t act on that information,” said Catherine Miller, interim CEO of Doteveryone, during a virtual panel on the report’s high-level findings.

“Some 94% of people, for example, say it’s important to know what a company does with their personal data, but only 25% can actually get any of that information.”

She added that people’s sense of resignation and disempowerment were reflected in their attitudes towards terms and conditions, with 45% saying there was no point reading them because “companies will do what they want anyway”.

As a solution to these issues, Doteveryone, which conducted the study in collaboration with consultants BritainThinks, recommends that all tech companies “implement trustworthy, transparent design patterns that show how services work and give people meaningful control over how they operate”, and that they provide accessible ways for people to report their concerns.

The uneven benefits of technology

Despite people’s misgivings about their lack of control, the UK public generally sees greater benefit from digital technologies for themselves as individuals than they do for society as a whole.

“The vast majority of people think the internet has improved their lives: 81% say the internet has made life a lot or a little better for ‘people like me’. But they are less convinced it’s been good for society as a whole: 58% say it has had a very positive or fairly positive impact on society overall,” said the report.

It also noted a significant drop in enthusiasm over the past two years since the first People, power and technology survey was conducted, with 38% saying the internet has made life a lot better for people like them now, compared to 50% in 2018.

The report also alluded to a class dimension in how the benefits of technology are distributed across society, although it did not go into great detail.

“People on higher incomes are significantly more likely to say the internet has made life better for them (85%) than those who are less well off (75%). They are also more likely to agree that the internet has had a positive impact on society overall (62%) compared with just over half of those on lower incomes (52%),” it said.

According to Miller, the growth of digital technologies has taken place alongside a growth in inequality more generally.

“One of the things I think is very important that we research and understand more deeply is exactly the intersection between those two phenomenon – to what extent digital technologies really do exacerbate economic inequalities,” she told the panel.

“What you see at the moment – really worryingly in the response to the pandemic – is that people who are already most disadvantaged are getting the least benefit out of digital technologies in addressing the pandemic.

“People in lower-paying jobs cannot rely on digital technologies to keep on working, and they’re out physically working and being put at greater risk than people in the knowledge economy who can continue to work remotely.”

Creating accountability through regulation

According to Doteveryone’s findings, 58% of the public said that the tech sector is regulated too little, with 23% believing it’s regulated about the right amount and only 2% that it’s regulated too much.

Speaking on the panel, Roger Taylor, chair of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), said Doteveryone’s research was largely in line with his own organisation’s, and that while people generally see technology as beneficial, they recognise its potential harms and do not trust tech companies to address the problem without government intervention.

“They would like more personal control over what’s happening. We’re working further with everyone on this issue around how we set standards for what it means to give people some degree of meaningful control,” he said, adding that a properly empowered regulator would need mechanisms to fully access and understand the effects of new digital technologies.

According to the report, people identified government (53%) and independent regulators (48%) as having most responsibility for directing the impacts of technology on people and society, but in practice felt regulators (43%) and tech companies (41%) themselves were most able to influence these impacts.

“To create an equitable digital society, technology must work for the benefit of individuals, communities and society as a whole. It’s the job of the UK’s democratic institutions to manage that through regulation. This research shows the public doesn’t feel that the government is currently doing enough and there’s a clear demand for independent oversight,” it said.

“We recommend the creation of an independent body, the Office for Responsible Technology, to lead a concerted, coordinated and urgent effort to create a regulatory landscape fit for the digital age and to ensure the benefits of technology are evenly shared in a post-pandemic world.

“This body will empower regulators by closing gaps in regulation and supporting them with expertise and foresight; inform the public and policy-makers with an evidence base about the benefits and drawbacks of technologies; and support the public to find redress from technology-driven harms.”

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