Tech

The British public's trust in tech companies is wavering at a time when it needs it most

Key Points
  • The British public is demanding increased regulation on the technology sector, according to a report from think tank Doteveryone. 
  • National attitudes toward the benefits of technology are being overshadowed by distrust and disempowerment, according to the report. 
  • The coronavirus lockdown means that people in Britain are more dependent on the internet than ever.
A woman poses holding a smartphone showing the App for ride-sharing cab service Uber in London on September 22, 2017.
DANIEL Leal-Olivas | AFP | Getty Images

Silicon Valley's image has been tarnished by scandal after scandal over the last decade and now the British public trusts the technology sector less than ever, according to a report out Monday from think tank Doteveryone. 

The study — titled "People Power and Technology: The 2020 Digital Attitudes Report" and based on responses from 2,000 members of the U.K. public — found that only 19% of Brits believe that tech companies are designing their products and services with citizen's best interests in mind. 

In December 2017, when Doteveryone ran the first version of the study, 25% of people said they didn't feel like they needed to read the terms and conditions when signing up to digital platforms because they trusted the company to do the right thing. In 2020, that figure stands at just 20%, indicating that the British public trusts the tech sector less than it used to. 

"I don't trust them at all," said a member of the public who took part in a focus group for the study. "I think they're not looking at my best interests, they're looking at their own best interests and trying to provide whatever they can to get me to give my details over, pass on my details, sell my details."

In the online survey, the majority of Brits (58%) said they think the tech sector is regulated too little and 26% said nothing happened after they reported something that they deemed inappropriate.

Worryingly, half of respondents said they think that being cheated or harmed on the internet is "part and parcel" of being online and only 50% of people said they felt optimistic about how technology will impact society in the future. 

"Government, regulators and industry must listen to the concerns people voice and act urgently to create a digital future that's good for people and planet," said Martha Lane Fox, founder and executive chair of Doteveryone, in a statement. 

Under the spotlight

While the world's biggest technology companies improve many aspects of people's lives, their platforms and are also proving to be incredibly harmful. 

Barely a week goes by when Google, Uber, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, aren't criticized for one thing or another. Tech firms been called out for spreading misinformation, dodging taxes, having poor work environments, making addictive platforms, paying low wages, exploiting child labor, having ineffective child safety measures, leaking user's personal data and more. 

But right now, their platforms are more vital than ever.

Google is an endless fountain of knowledge. Facebook allows people to stay in touch. Netflix keeps us entertained. Amazon delivers basically everything to our door. Deliveroo keeps us fed and watered. 

Technology is also set to play a major role in tracing the spread of the virus across the country, with contact-tracing apps expected to be launched in countries like Britain in the coming weeks. One is already being trialed on the Isle of Wight, which lies off England's south coast. 

"The lockdown is reshaping our relationship with technology and these changes will be lasting," said Doteveryone's interim CEO Catherine Miller. "It's vital that our increased dependence on technology doesn't take place in a vacuum of regulation and accountability."

Government action

The report argues that while there have been lots of policy ideas put forward, they've had little impact on people's lives. 

Doteveryone made a number of requests to see the government create a new independent body called the Office for Responsible Technology, to create regulation that is fit for the digital age.

It also wants tech companies to implement trustworthy, transparent design patterns that show how their services work and give more meaningful control to users. U.K. regulators should enforce this. 

Finally, it wants tech companies to create new easy ways for users to report concerns. 

Spokespersons for Google and Facebook were not immediately available when contacted by CNBC.