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When corporations save the world

Jonny Shipp / Jun 2023

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Global corporations tend to contribute to the troubles in our world: big oil is implicated in climate change; food, agriculture, and pharmaceutical companies profit from the obesity epidemic; and big tech has exacerbated mental health problems and the information crisis which threatens democratic institutions.

Our world is on fire. This month, wildfires in Canada gave New Yorkers their first real smell of climate change. People’s fear about AI, artificial intelligence, is being hotly debated in the media. They are right to worry: new developments in AI, and the deeply complex digital and data-driven ecosystem, might only lead to greater social division and cultural conflict across the world.

It is also possible that digital technologies, having transformed everyday life over the last 20 years, might now hold the key to tackling society’s biggest challenges, including climate change, health, inequality and digital safety. The Singapore based Tech for Good Institute proposes a model to help evaluate whether technologies can deliver on this promise. They should: do no harm, transform lives and livelihoods, support new ways to prevent harm, and facilitate efficiencies.

Paradoxically, the institutions that have the greatest strength, resources and capacity to deliver Tech for Good at the necessary scale and pace, might be the global corporations that are often implicated in the trouble in the first place. Many people will find this idea difficult to accept, but what if it is possible to motivate these organisations to consciously deliver positive change?

Fed by the huge amount of data produced in digital environments, artificial intelligence is used in social media to power the profiling, personalization and recommendations that capture, hold and monetise people's attention. Richard Benjamins, co-founder of OdiseIA, the Spanish observatory on the social and ethical impact of AI, explained that one of the consequences of this is the creation of “tunnel vision”: you only see things you're interested in, according to your view of life. Driven by algorithms seeking only to maximise financial returns, these “echo chambers'' continue to undermine mental health and democratic processes.

Digital advertising expert and Dublin-based entrepreneur Mary Keane-Dawson says that advertising performance metrics are continuously manipulated: “We always look like we're overachieving the targets because the metrics have become too disconnected from the actual consumers. We should be concentrating on real indicators of consumer engagement and enjoyment.”

Whilst regulators and social media companies have experimented with how to mitigate these problems, they have not yet delivered the fundamental changes to business models and strategies that might be needed to transform lives and livelihoods and deliver the kind of efficiencies that might radically improve food, energy, transport and health systems.

In Europe, the largest social media companies face significant new regulatory obligations this year as the Digital Services Act comes into force. As with Europe’s data protection legislation, under which Meta was recently fined 1.2 billion euros for non-compliance with data transfer rules, the Digital Services Act will shape the regulatory environment well beyond the European Union. The same is true for the AI Act, which European legislators may settle this year. And there is more to follow with the Data Act and talk of reviews and consolidation of European digital rules as part of the next European Commission mandate.

It is hardly surprising that Chad Wollen, founder of the London-based Privacy Experience Agency, questions whether there is actually a need to produce new data protection legislation or whether the focus should be on more effective regulatory enforcement. It is not only about the size of fines: speed and visibility are also key to building accountability by enabling stakeholders to judge corporate conduct.

According to Ruth Steinholtz, co-author of Ethical Business Practice and Regulation, fines are not the answer at all, and such complex environments require a more collaborative approach between companies and regulators. Fines may simply be priced into the cost of doing business and so offer no benefit to consumers. “We have to really understand that the old deterrence and punishment model does not work, it's ineffective, it's wasting our time, it's wasting a lot of resources… there are better ways of motivating organisations to try to do the right thing.”

Steinholtz’s approach resonates with my own experience of global corporations: with the right motivation it is possible to mobilise people, and the corporations they run, to change the world for the better. As Steinholtz says, senior business leaders who care about their reputations, and who care about their impact on society, and on the planet, will find ways to align the values and purpose of their organisations to accelerate positive change.

One helpful framework is the UN-backed Global Action Plan for a Sustainable Planet in the Digital Age. Published in June 2022, it draws on the Corporate Digital Responsibility - CDR - Manifesto created by Rob Price and colleagues.. The CDR Manifesto provides a holistic framework to guide organisational thinking about social and environmental impact, whether in relation to carbon emissions, waste, privacy impact or algorithmic bias.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and its planned September 2024 Global Digital Compact will help organisations to deliver Tech for Good. New corporate ESG - Environmental, Social and Governance - reporting obligations will also encourage business leaders to think strategically about all this. The European Commission's 2022 strategic Foresight Report points to the need to find and exploit synergies between the “twin” transitions of digitalisation and decarbonisation. These twinned transitions are at the top of the EU’s political agenda and will be at the centre of the public policy agenda for years to come.

Big tech companies and other private institutions are generating strong economic returns from AI. They also have opportunities to collaborate with governments and NGOs to realise social and environmental benefits. To save the world, we need them to identify green and digital transition policy proposals that they can accelerate with their experience, capacity and resources. Europe’s emerging AI regulation, the Data Act, and the difficult Regulation to Prevent and Combat Child Sexual Abuse are three immediate examples in which such opportunities are to be discovered.

 

Jonny Shipp

Jonny Shipp

June 2023

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