Nearly 20 years ago, in my research work I and colleagues identified the IT platform companies as implementing a radical new business model that would be profoundly transformational in many dimensions, in terms of potential for astonishing levels of growth, global market share, monopoly and competitive lockout and opportunities for small companies to slingshot their capability onto the global stage.
These things have come to pass. However, what we didn’t foresee was the potential for abuse – specifically the collection and resale of individuals’ data, the profiling and tracking for commercial advantage and more recently for political advantage. Also, the use of the platform for nefarious purposes. Nor did we identify the issue of split responsibility and governance in a platform environment.
All enterprises require some form of governance, internal and external. In the past external governance of corporations has been about ownership, assets and financial probity. More recently there has been some moves to implement more qualitative forms of governance to require corporations to report on issues such as climate change and social responsibility. Clearly, we now need strong governance over the technology companies and their customers use of the platform. I am speaking specifically about Facebook, Twitter and Google as priorities, but I fully anticipate the requirement will be much broader.
Let’s consider a simple model.
1. Establish a global governance board under the aegis of the United Nations. Allow the UN to appoint acknowledged tech sector experts who have unquestioned neutrality to a governance board with a limited term of 3 years. Charter and resource the board to propose and publish policies and monitor and report 6 monthly on key compliance issues.
2. Example policies:
a. Establish limits over individuals’ or enterprises’ use of the social platforms. Require named tech companies to make an account charge of $1 per month for every follower/friend over say 1000.
b. Require platforms to highlight paid adverts and accounts to other users.
c. Require named platforms to provide open standards for interaction between social platforms to reduce monopoly behaviors.
d. Require user ownership of personal data and rights to opt in or out of profiling based messaging and advertising.
e. Require message privacy to be subject to external governance by approved security services.
f. Recommend country level taxation systems that claw back excess profits supplementary to corporate tax regimes.
3. Charter the UN governance board to establish communications with country level governance boards and facilitate coherent implementation of policies at global and country level.
These are simply ideas. The biggest issue will be, how to make it work? Because of course there are no global governance bodies that would see this as their responsibility. Further national governments are restricted by various treaties on cross country taxation. However, we do have examples of global governance. It must be said that climate change is perhaps not a good example to copy. A better example is the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This is an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of numerous substances that are responsible for ozone depletion. It was agreed on 16 September 1987, and entered into force on 1 January 1989, followed by a first meeting in Helsinki, May 1989. Due to its widespread adoption and implementation it has been hailed as an example of exceptional international co-operation, with Kofi Annan quoted as saying that “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date has been the Montreal Protocol”.
Further, we might expect that the tech companies in question may be prepared to cooperate in some form of self-governance on key policies that could be implemented very rapidly. Certainly some of the tech leaders have emphasized the importance of moral compass. Google has recently moved from “don’t be evil” to “do the right thing”, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has made various socially responsible comments including, “give people power”. If the tech companies are smart, and they usually are, they will see they are better off negotiating rather than having governance forced on them.
Very clearly the time has come that we need to be sure political processes cannot be abused, that individuals’ privacy is respected and that profits made by tech companies are taxed appropriately. If demagogues or manipulators can afford to “pay” for the privilege of having 35 million followers, then at least there will be visibility of the cost benefit. These are problems that can and should be fixed, now.