Privacy Advocate Richard Holober on the Tech Backlash of 2017 

We’ve just passed a year full of news about the role of technology companies in U.S. elections, democracy, free speech, fairness in hiring, sexual harassment, privacy, data security, and the future job market for humans in the age of robots and artificial intelligence.

Speculation is rampant about a possible sea change in consumer attitudes toward the tech industry and its products—a shift that might affect sales, the regulatory environment, and other factors important to companies.

To get a read on that question, we talked with Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, a non-profit advocacy group that has made privacy for tech users one of its top issues. The organization, which works alongside other California consumer protection groups, backs privacy bills in the state legislature, and takes positions on federal policy decisions such as the FCC’s recent reversal of Obama-era net neutrality regulations.

Holober e-mailed responses to questions Xconomy sent to tech industry leaders and others whose work touches technology innovation. He then answered follow-up questions in a phone interview.

Here’s an edited transcript of our exchange:

Xconomy: Do you think 2017 was a turning point in public attitudes toward technology and the tech industry?

Richard Holober: Attitudes towards the reliability of social media providers plummeted as news broke of the extent of bogus posts by Russian agents purporting to be news coverage of the Presidential election, and the initial responses by Facebook and others that they were merely platforms that had no responsibility to vet these posts. Also, the public grows less and less comfortable with online providers’ insatiable appetite for invading our privacy every minute of every day.

X: If attitudes toward tech have changed for the worse, what were the events that brought about these attitude changes, or solidified them?

RH: Revelations about how Russian agents manipulated social media to post lies posing as news during the 2016 Presidential campaign; repeal of FCC ISP privacy rules; repeal of FCC net neutrality rules, all expose the triumph of profit over social responsibility by the giant online providers.

X: Did the events of 2017 mark a big watershed year in the evolution of public attitudes toward tech?

RH: It’s hard to think one year is a watershed year. Maybe there’s a beginning of a loss of innocence about companies like Facebook and other social media companies. People may not think those companies walk on water, as they used to.

There’s extensive polling to show (public attitudes) such as, “Even though I’m in love with the new technology, at the same time I’m deeply troubled by the loss of privacy.”

From polling and consumer contacts, we know that this is an area of concern and aggravation.

There should be a middle ground that allows people better access to these connections, without having to sacrifice all their privacy. The (tech) business model is turning the user into the product. Providers collect users’ personal data and sell it to advertisers. It’s very invasive. It creates an existential question: Whether privacy is a fundamental right.

It’s nobody’s business to know where we are (at all times), or if we are searching online about diseases, sexual orientations, political points of view, religious views, or shopping for alcohol. Every one of those items is used to create a detailed profile, in an invasion of the most private areas of our lives. How it’s used is subject to the whims of those collecting it.

X: Are Americans concerned about government access to their personal data?

RH: There’s no question that we have evidence of Internet providers and phone companies cooperating voluntarily with government privacy intrusions, beyond (what the government could obtain) through court orders and subpoenas. Based on public opinion polls, though, people are more concerned about corporate privacy invasions than they are about the government. Concerns about terrorism and crime mitigate the concern about government (access to personal information.)

X: Given the concerns about privacy, why do you think U.S. consumers often snap up the latest consumer technology?

RH: My impression is that people are enamored of gadgetry. The more people understand invasion of privacy, the more they are taking steps (to guard against it.)

 X:  Have your personal patterns of technology usage changed as a result of something that happened in 2017, or in recent years? If so, how?

RH: I threw away my smart phone and began using end-to-end encryption on personal email and a browser that anonymizes my IP address.

The smartphone had apps, which often have terms of service 40 pages long that nobody reads. They allow apps to access your phone book and read your texts and e-mails, just so you can play some silly games.

I use a telephone to talk to people. I use a flip-phone. It allows text messages, and I’m very selective about who gets to send them, like my family. For search, I use a tablet. It doesn’t store very much information about me; it doesn’t have much of a hard drive, or files.

For Internet access, I use a portable hot spot. It takes about 30 seconds to connect. It’s a bit inconvenient, but ten years ago, I didn’t have any of this stuff.

By observing people’s online shopping, companies figure out how price-sensitive consumers are. For hotels and airlines, I get shown certain prices, and then they go up. With Tor, the anonymized browser (he uses), the low airfare suddenly reappears.

X: Are you or your organization involved in efforts to make technology work better for consumers, citizens, students, patients, government leaders, non-profits, etc? What is that mission, and how is it going?

RH: The Consumer Federation of California is a leading consumer protection advocate. We have introduced and supported numerous bills to require tech companies to protect consumer privacy, to democratize the internet, and restore access to civil justice for consumers who are ripped-off by tech and other businesses. We have won some restrictions in California against computer monitoring, against improper use of telematics to track driver behavior, to limit police seizures of contents of cell phones, to protect online privacy for minors and students, and have defeated attempts to roll back medical and telephone privacy rights. We have also fought to restore for Californians the repealed FCC ISP privacy regulations (AB 375 – Chau) which has so far been stopped by the combined wealth of the telecom, cable and tech industries.

X: Have changing public attitudes about the tech industry made your work or your mission easier or harder?

RH: Easier as more people realize that the tech industry has its dark side, but within the Capitol, much of the time corporate dollars overpower the citizens’ demands for fairness.

X: Has the public perception of tech improved in some ways? If so, how and why?

RH: No

X: If you think public perception about the tech industry turned for the worse in 2017, what should the industry do to rebuild trust in 2018?

RH: Abandon its opposition to every proposed law or regulation that protects consumers, workers and the community.

Standards in the EU, Canada, and elsewhere show that to have an open and free online economy does not require snooping, eavesdropping, and other privacy invasions the U.S. permits.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a year-end series exploring the current public mood about technology and its effect on individuals and society.]

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