How Data Privacy Blunders and Conspiracy Theories Helped Fuel the ‘Techlash’

July 17, 2018, 9:59 PM UTC

Smartphone addiction, data privacy blunders, and a growth-at-all costs mentality has led to public backlash against the tech industry that some refer to as “techlash.”

That rising skepticism was the focus of heated debate at Fortune‘s Brainstorm Tech conference on Tuesday in Aspen, Colo. Is the tech industry good, bad—or both?

Former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, who founded the non-profit Center for Humane Technology, said that “the technology we create is not neutral.” His argument runs counter to what many tech companies insist—that their services help people stay connected with each other, make their lives easier, and keep them better informed.

Services like Google’s YouTube “are designed with a goal, to capture human attention,” Harris said, no matter whether it does so in a productive way for its users. YouTube’s leaders had no intention of spreading conspiracy videos through their service, but the computers powering the video’s recommendation engine determined that conspiracy videos are really good at keeping people glued to their screens—in keeping with the overall business strategy.

Harris gave another example of adolescents who want to watch diet videos on YouTube, in an effort to find a way to lose weight. But YouTube may instead recommend videos about anorexia, he said, because those videos do “relatively well at keeping teenagers’ attention.”

The thirst of tech companies to attract younger users has also led to parents to increasingly worry that children spend too much time online. And many people are also concerned about privacy.

A new survey of nearly 3,000 people by online polling firm SurveyMonkey and Fortune found that people 18 to 24 “are the most apt to be online constantly, and also the least likely to say they think about their personal privacy every time they use the web.”

SurveyMonkey chief research officer Jon Cohen told Fortune on Tuesday that “younger people make a dramatically different trade off than older people.” They are much more likely to accept giving up their privacy in order to use the latest and greatest services.

The town hall also referenced SurveyMonkey’s polling that showed that while 77% of people trust their bank, 56% distrust Google and 41% distrust Apple. Meanwhile, after a series of privacy blunders like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook is distrusted by 67% of the public.

Of course, the public isn’t too keen about news sites either with sixty-eight percent of the survey’s respondents saying they don’t trust news websites. But that’s not because of ideological concerns or because they believe the media creates so-called “fake news.” Rather, it’s that people don’t trust how news organizations collect and use their personal data, explained Cohen.

Harris believes that the tech industry should reevaluate their focus on short-term decisions that spur rapid user growth. They should instead consider how those products will be used by society, he said.

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Harris said that it’s a positive sign that companies like Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) have started initiatives intended to educate customers about limiting their use of various services.

While are more “lightweight gestures” and not “fundamental reshifts,” they are the kinds of changes that need to happen, he said.

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