Lowenstein’s View—Silicon Valley, telcos and data: We own this too

Siemens HK CEO: No conflict between open data and privacy
Privacy is an ongoing topic in the mobile and online industries. (iStockPhoto)

Every time we enter a 5K, send our kid on a school field trip or undergo a medical procedure, we’re required to sign reams of waiver forms and permission slips. By contrast, most of us blindly post on Facebook, search on Google, shop on Amazon and engage with dozens of connected apps on our phones every day.

We all know, at a high level, that our data is a form of currency, sort of like why network TV is free (ads), while HBO requires a subscription (no ads). But we don't really know exactly what is being done with our data.

The Facebook debacle and subsequent Washington spectacle is an important moment in the 20-year history of the broadband internet. And this story is about a lot more than Facebook. It’s a time when we need to take a long, hard look at what the social contract is with the major Silicon Valley firms and telcos.

Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Netflix collectively represent a huge percentage of the collective PC/mobile OS, digital advertising, online commerce, mobile/broadband connectivity and pay TV markets. What should we require of these companies going forward? What role should regulators play? And importantly, how can we become more knowledgeable about what is being done with our data and what sorts of controls we should have?

For those wondering what this topic is doing in a FierceWireless column, perhaps it’s owing to a concern that the telcos have been conspicuously absent from this "data privacy" discussion over these past few weeks. That’s odd, not because they have acted badly but because they are huge actors in this drama.

Telcos retain records of our calls and texts, our location, our data activity and so on. Comcast, with its cloud DVR technology, pretty much knows everything you do with every click of the remote. The larger service providers are itching to get even deeper into the data juggernaut, what with Verizon owning AOL and Yahoo!, and AT&T owning DirecTV and possibly Time Warner.

Add IoT to the mix, with potentially billions of connected devices sitting in your home, your car and who knows where else.

So, what to do? First, I suggested in a companion column last week in Techpinions that the Silicon Valley Giants should hold a summit on data security and privacy. AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Amazon should meet, along with Netflix and Intel potentially. The objective would be to lay down the rules of the road going forward and prevent this from being taken over by the bloviating regulators in Washington who a) know nothing about this stuff, and b) aren’t exactly high on our trust list themselves right now.

Second, consumers need to take more responsibility. Those of us in the ‘biz might have a greater appreciation of what is being done with our data, but the average user is remarkably naive.

I’ve talked with about 25 friends and family across a range of professions and age ranges over the past couple of weeks about this issue. Most have very little knowledge about what companies can legally do with their data. Even fewer know what sorts of settings or controls are available, and/or how to operate them.

This is something we need to take greater ownership of and know more about. There’s a continuum here. The current mode for most consumers is to treat this like the fine print on the warranty that came with their washer or TV, or to breeze through that 20-page Apple agreement and click “Agree”.

Then there’s the "drivers’ ed" model, where you’ve got to know both the rules of the road and how to operate a vehicle, in order to get a license. I do believe that going forward, there needs to be some required course or tutorial, so we can all be fluent in the language of the "rules of the road" (what happens to our data), and how to adjust the setting and controls (operating the "vehicle"). This needs to be more than a generic consent form.

Of course, the industry bears some responsibility here as well. I’d love to see Silicon Valley, Hollywood or ed-tech creative types design some online interactive course that gets us all much more familiar with this "data thing."

It’s also important that there be greater consistency, across devices, apps, OSs and websites, in terms of how to manage and configure settings. Today, this stuff is often in obscure places and the configuration tools can be obtuse.

This has been crappy year for tech’s relationship with its users. Nearly every major player, from Facebook to Google to Apple to Uber, has engaged in some form of less-than-laudatory behavior.

Even so, I’d prefer the smart and capable leaders of Silicon Valley and telecom to own this: be proactive and do the right thing to rebuild consumers’ trust. Otherwise, if regulators take over, this will be a multiyear, contentious, cumbersome, overly expensive slog.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.

This is FierceWireless' opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of the editorial staff.