Although digital technology doubtless brings with it a host of benefits, it still presents very real concerns in terms of trust in technology, privacy and cybersecurity. Moderator Damon Embling of Euronews asked a diverse panel drawn from across international organizations, regulator and consumer groups: do consumers really trust in a digital future?
The issue of trust resonated throughout the session. For Helena Leurent, Director-General, Consumers International, although consumers are dipping their feet more and more into the digital economy, buying, selling and trading online, they still do not feel entirely comfortable within it, and are still unsure of what they can trust. Consumers find the whole idea somehow “creepy”, she explained, and it is this sense of creepiness that could prevent the economy expanding.
For ITU Deputy Secretary-General Malcolm Johnson, there is an increasing awareness that digital technologies are essential for meeting the SDGs, therefore it is important that all citizens are able to take advantage of them. Trust is one of the reasons people are not connected. ITU is addressing this from a security point of view, through its work on standards, and has a large private sector membership who are driving standards work- along with an impending new membership category, SMEs. “We have to make sure people are comfortable using technology,” he told delegates.
Politicians recognise the need to keep people safe, said Jeremy Godfrey, Chair of the Board of Regulators, BEREC. People need to be protected from harmful content. Businesses also need to be able to trust that they can be treated fairly and that data is being used appropriately, although “we don’t yet have in place tools to do that,” he explained. Building trust also poses regulatory challenges; the pace of regulation does not necessarily match the pace of innovation, and regulators may not necessarily possess all the knowledge needed. “A light touch, principle-based regulation” is called for, he explained.
Flexibility in policy terms is also key for OECD, whose “Going Digital” project makes the case for a flexible approach to policy making, according to Endre Spaller, Vice-President, Government IT Development Agency, Ministry for Innovation and Technology, Hungary and a member of the OECD’s Committee on Digital Economic Policy. A stronger policy collaboration is also essential, he explained, as the digital transformation affects many different aspects of society. Governments and stakeholders must work together to build a digital future.
Putting consumer rights at the heart of tech innovation
Technology needs make sure it focuses on rights of consumers, said Leurent. “What about applying innovation to consumer protection tech?” she asked delegates. Protecting consumers yet at the same time making sure regulation doesn’t stifle innovation is a delicate balancing act as overregulation could mean that “any innovative product goes through so many checks it never actually sees the market,” said Godfrey.
Consumer and user groups need to be part of the stakeholders dialogue, said ITU’s Johnson, also in terms of standards development, where input is essential. “We need international standards to ensure security and trust” he explained.
Building a thriving digital economy
Spaller outlined OECD’s three main areas of cooperation in order for the digital economy to thrive: firstly, in terms of data, measuring the value of and unleashing the full potential for free flow of data; secondly, equipping populations with the right skillset and training to flourish in a digital economy; and thirdly, measuring the digital transformation. Here OECD has created its own measurement system.
The benefits that the digital economy has already opened up should not be overlooked, said Godfrey: “Consumers can now buy and sell from traders across the world, share reviews and experiences with other consumers,” which is hugely beneficial.
Despite the many digital benefits many of us currently enjoy, education amongst consumers is still essential to help them navigate and flourish in the digital economy. Consumers need to be educated, to understand what their rights are and what they need to look out for, explained Leurent.
Panellists then took questions voted on by the audience, which spanned areas from speeding up policy making, maintaining trust among consumers to regulating tech “giants.” Quizzed on the issue of whether excessive regulation could potentially hinder growth of digital innovation in developing markets, Godfrey explained that it was not just in developing markets but everywhere, although developing markets can potentially learn from the developed world. “Just because we have sold our souls and given away so much data we have regretted it does not mean that everyone else should go this way,” he said. Being a latecomer in the game could even be an upside, according to Daniel Pataki, Vice President of Regulation, GSMA, as maybe by the time developing countries are grappling with privacy issues, they may be able adopt practices already in use elsewhere.
Embling summed up by asking panellists for their views on future trends and digital priorities.
Spaller would like to see a future where digitization is not just a goal, but lives with us. Collaboration will be key, according to GSMA’s Pataki, across the full digital ecosystem. Ensuring that consumers are fully involved in the digital future and that their voices are heard is crucial for Consumers International’s Leurent. Regulators must continue to work using existing tools, explained Godfrey, but debate on how we can put in place new regulation will also be important. However, we need to be realistic about the limitations of what regulation might achieve, he added. Wrapping up the session, Johnson stressed the need for a platform where we can all exchange views, inviting delegates to join the ITU’s next AI for Good Global summit.