Companies are increasingly in controlling positions of the tech narrative in the press. They are funding neutral third-sector orgs’ and think tanks’ research. Supporting organisations advising on online education. Closely involved in politics. And sit increasingly, within the organisations set up to lead the technology vision, advising government on policy and UK data analytics, or on social media, AI and ethics.
It is all subject to corporate capture.
But is this healthy for UK public policy and the future not of an industry sector, but a whole technology, when it comes to AI?
If a company’s vital business interests seem unfazed by the risk and harm they cause to individuals — from people who no longer trust the confidentiality of the system to measurable harms — why should those companies sit on public policy boards set up to shape the ethics they claim we need, to solve the problems and restore loss of trust that these very same companies are causing?
We laud people in these companies as co-founders and forward thinkers on new data ethics institutes. They are invited to sit on our national boards, or create new ones.
What does that say about the entire board’s respect for the law which the company breached? It is hard not to see it signal acceptance of the company’s excuses or lack of accountability.
The same companies whose work has breached data protection law, multiple ways, seemingly ‘by accident’ on national data extractions, are those companies that cross the t’s and dot the i’s on even the simplest conference call, and demand everything is said in strictest confidence. Meanwhile their everyday business practices ignore millions of people’s lawful rights to confidentiality.
The extent of commercial companies’ influence on these boards is opaque. To allow this ethics bandwagon to be driven by the corporate giants surely eschews genuine rights-based values, and long-term integrity of the body they appear to serve.
I am told that these global orgs must be in the room and at the table, to use the opportunity to make the world a better place.
These companies already have *all* the opportunity. Not only monopoly positions on their own technology, but the datasets at scale which underpin it, excluding new entrants to the market. Their pick of new hires from universities. The sponsorship of events. The political lobbying. Access to the media. The lawyers. Bottomless pockets to pay for it all. And seats at board tables set up to shape UK policy responses.
It’s a struggle for power, and a stake in our collective future. The status quo is not good enough for many parts of society, and to enable Big Tech or big government to maintain that simply through the latest tools, is a missed chance to reshape for good.
You can see it in many tech boards’ make up, and pervasive white male bias. We hear it echoed in London think tank conferences, even independent tech design agencies, or set out in some Big Tech reports. All seemingly unconnected, but often funded by the same driving sources.
These companies are often those that made it worse to start with, and the very ethics issues the boards have been set up to deal with, are at the core of their business models and of their making.
The deliberate infiltration of influence on online safety policy for children, or global privacy efforts is very real, explicitly set out in the #FacebookEmails, for example.
We will not resolve these fundamental questions, as long as the companies whose business depend on them, steer national policy. The odds will be ever in their favour.
At the same time, some of these individuals are brilliant. In all senses.
So what’s the answer. If they are around the table, what should the UK public expect of their involvement, and ensure in whose best interests it is? How do we achieve authentic accountability?
Whether it be social media, data analytics, or AI in public policy, can companies be safely permitted to be policy shapers if they wear all the hats; product maker, profit taker, *and* process or product auditor?
Creating Authentic Accountability
At minimum we must demand responsibility for their own actions from board members who represent or are funded by companies.
- They must deliver on their own product problems first before being allowed to suggest solutions to societal problems.
- There should be credible separation between informing policy makers, and shaping policy.
- There must be total transparency of funding sources across any public sector boards, of members, and those lobbying them.
- Board members must be meaningfully held accountable for continued company transgressions on rights and freedoms, not only harms.
- Oversight of board decision making must be decentralised, transparent and available to scrutiny and meaningful challenge.
While these new bodies may propose solutions that include public engagement strategies, transparency, and standards, few propose meaningful oversight. The real test is not what companies say in their ethical frameworks, but in what they continue to do.
If they fail to meet legal or regulatory frameworks, minimum accountability should mean no more access to public data sets and losing positions of policy influence.
Their behaviour needs to go above and beyond meeting the letter of the law, scraping by or working around rights based protections. They need to put people ahead of profit and self interests. That’s what ethics should mean, not be a PR route to avoid regulation.
As long as companies think the consequences of their platforms and actions are tolerable and a minimal disruption to their business model, society will be expected to live with their transgressions, and our most vulnerable will continue to pay the cost.
This is part 2 of thoughts on Policy shapers, product makers, and profit takers — data and AI. Part 1 is here.