Let's talk

Nicolas Zahn • September 2021

The development of digital technologies would benefit greatly from closer and earlier collaboration between tech companies and other stakeholders such as civil society.

Pushing through isn’t really working

Whether it is WhatsApp delaying privacy changes, the content platform OnlyFans revoking a previously issued ban or recently, Apple backing down from rolling out a new controversial feature: more and more, tech companies face serious backlash on product or policy decisions, leading them to delay or outright revoke those decisions. How did we get here?

This escalation and the growing number of successful backlashes - that is from the perspective of the ones organising them, often members of civil society, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation - are a clear sign of  the tone deafness that seems to be dominant among tech companies. They either did not anticipate the backlash, showing a lack of understanding of their stakeholders, or they did not consider backlashes to matter, showing a gross misunderstanding of the organisation’s position and capabilities.

It is remarkable that an industry that prides itself to be focussing on consumer’s needs and adjusting products constantly in short feedback loops, does not take such an iterative and collaborative approach when it comes to public policy decisions or controversial features.

Address issues and feedback early on

Engaging in a public backlash is usually a last resort after failing to raise concerns within the tech company regarding a controversial decision. Whether it is critical feedback from within or from outside a company, management is well advised to take challenging inputs seriously.

Most organisations in the digital civil society would like to give constructive feedback and add their point of view and expertise early on. But if there is never an opportunity to collaborate or if any inputs given are directly dismissed, the number of public backlashes - and hence also the number of successful backlashes - is likely to rise.

This is bad news for all involved parties: civil society organisations usually have scarce resources and need to think carefully about which battles to fight. Having to engage in more and more backlashes to counter controversial decisions becomes a losing game.

On the other hand, tech companies might have no problem spending additional money on various efforts to counter such backlashes, which in turn are likely to decrease the chance of success for future backlashes.

However, tech companies should think very hard about whether such a hardball strategy would be sustainable. We’d argue that it is in the tech companies own interest to seek closer and serious collaboration with other internal and external stakeholders to benefit from their input and address potential issues early on.

The Swiss political system shows the benefits of an approach that tries to take into account various stakeholders positions before reaching a decision. The democratic system is sometimes criticised for taking too long, however, investing in getting everybody’s support pays dividends when the decisions should finally be implemented, increasing the stability of the decision. Maybe, what has worked for Switzerland would also work well for Big Tech.