How Can Silicon Valley Regain Consumers' Trust After Data Scandal Woes?


As the big tech firms like Facebook, Google, and Amazon come under scrutiny from the public and multiple governments across the world, one big question that consumers, companies, and governments will have to answer is this: can Silicon Valley make amends with its customer base?

Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified to Congress this week about the company's practices with its' consumers data, along with the allegations that the social network has actively engaged in suppression of conservative-leaning content. During the hearings, the elected officials pressed him on these issues, and the looming question is what to do next.

Congress is priming its response by debating the need for federal regulations. But other mechanisms could work more efficiently than government standards. Internet governance scholar Shane Tews says there is a strategy for these companies to get back in the public's good graces.

Tech companies have been very vocal that they can self-regulate rather than be forced into federal regulation. Compelling websites and mobile apps to be more transparent in their privacy policies by requiring that they explain their data collection practices could be part of a resolution if companies supply users with a simple description of their data-sharing relationships with vendors and marketing partners. An immediate change in policy from unreadable terms of use to consumer-friendly language about what’s going on when you use their service could go a long way to resolving the concern about lack of understanding to what a user has agreed to and what happens with the data.

Consumers have a very difficult time understanding exactly how their data are used. Tews says she believes a fix is to present consumers more information more clearly and in a manner that a layman can understand.

Users should have more visibility into what information is gathered on them and how this data is collected. Currently, does every user opting into third-party agreements when they install new apps really understand what they just agreed to and the implications for their data?

In her assessment, it will be difficult for Congress to stick to the sidelines in this debate, especially with revelations that user data are not as protected as widely believed. Whatever happens, it is important that privacy regulations are equitable so that the whole Internet is subject to the same quality of protection. And that may just default to government-imposed rules.

Ultimately, it will be up to the companies themselves to repair their own image. If they do not, consumers will act accordingly.