Choice signs

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica – it’s time to make choices

First appeared in PRWeek:

The revelations surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook revealed by The Observer and Channel 4 are shocking but it was expected by many of us who work in the world of technology. Whatever the legalities of the situation, a good proportion of the population are likely to be both surprised and angry that their personal data appears to have been exploited in the way reported.

I’m not surprised in the slightest, although I share the anger. For some years I’ve been ranting to anyone who was interested (and most weren’t) that we have been sleepwalking. We’ve allowed the creation of technology giants and we’ve handed them enormous power and control over our lives. This is now a world of ‘ones’ – one company dictates which websites we visit, one company curates our relationships with friends and family and one company effectively ‘owns’ shopping.

I have no objection in principle to big and powerful technology companies since they’ve given us much that benefits us all. Unfortunately, very little responsibility has accompanied the grant of power and control. Furthermore, unlike our politicians, we don’t have the option of deselecting them every few years via the ballot box. What we have is a small number of companies with enough resources to potentially stifle competition and to take on the legal and regulatory regimes of the countries in which they operate. That would all be fine if all these companies were universally benevolent but it would be naïve to think that the pursuit of individual and corporate wealth isn’t having an influence on the decisions some of them take.

Let’s assume the reports are accurate for a moment. Cambridge Analytica isn’t one of the giants but its apparent actions could only have been enabled by the release of huge volumes of data by Facebook. Facebook argues that this wasn’t a data breach in the strict sense of the term and the ‘techie’ in me supports that position but at the very least it could be seen as an abdication of responsibility. Very few checks and balances appear to have been in place to ensure that the data couldn’t be shared and exploited.

So, what does all of this mean for those of us in the technology PR industry? I think it’s a time for choices. For any of us working, in-house or agency, with the giants of the technology industry, it’s incumbent on us (as those who are often most exposed to external perceptions) that we are a voice for corporate responsibility. That isn’t just about being a ‘good’ person, it’s actually about protecting your company from a situation in which the entire business is threatened. There’s a commonly held view that some companies are too big to crater but those of who have been in the industry for a number of years remember what happened to MySpace, RIM, Nokia, Yahoo and AOL.

If your voice is heard, understood and acted upon that’s great, but you also have a choice if it isn’t. You can resign the position or turn down the offer to work for a company you believe to be acting irresponsibly. If you don’t, and you carry on using your communications skills to defend the indefensible, you’re actually part of the problem.

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