How much of your data does Facebook actually collect? What does Netflix take into consideration when recommending movies and TV shows to you? Is Apple really slowing down your iPhone on purpose?
It is difficult to answer these questions definitively because we do not have all the answers. And we don’t have the answers because big tech companies like these haven’t provided them to us. In a world with more technological transparency, these might not be problems; We may have full access to all relevant information about how the company operates and how you interact with us.
Transparency is valuable in many contexts, as it builds trust, improves the transmission and understanding of information, and increases accountability. But is a more transparent tech industry something we really want?
Motivations for low transparency
It’s easy to position tech companies as evil or nefarious for one simple reason: Like all companies, they operate in their own interest. Google, Apple, Netflix, and other giants don’t particularly care about your well-being as an individual; They only care about you to the extent that you can help them generate long-term profits.
However, self-interest is not the same as malice or bad intentions. When companies intentionally withhold information, it is not solely to disguise wrongdoing or intentionally mislead people.
Take, for example, Google’s hidden search engine algorithm. We can deduce a lot about how Google ranks websites in search engine optimization (SEO); we even have a host of tools that can help you determine your ranking and how to improve them. But Google itself has never fully disclosed how its search engine algorithm works, beyond helpful suggestions for making a better website from scratch.
Why is this the case? Is Google intentionally sabotaging websites by hiding information? No. Instead, Google retains this information to improve the user experience. If the algorithm were publicly accessible, companies and individuals could easily find ways to fool the system, manipulate its rankings, and ultimately gain visibility despite not having much real relevance or authority in a chosen field.
There are several good reasons why tech companies would prefer a low transparency environment, such as:
- Integrity and courage. First, low transparency could be critical to preserving the integrity and value of the technology product or service being provided. This is often a difficult case, especially when the operation in question does not have a significant impact on the end user. But in some conditions, this is really vital. Google search is the best example; keeping at least some aspects of the algorithm secret is a practical necessity to avoid exploitation.
- Security. Security is a top priority for most tech companies and it’s only going to grow in importance. In the future, when technology becomes even more integrated into our daily lives (such as influencing the control and navigation of our vehicle), safety will become an even greater concern. Preserving safety is about keeping users happy, saving money, improving efficiency, and maintaining a good reputation with the public. In most situations, opacity can be a benefit to your security strategy; if people don’t know how their technology works, they will have a harder time controlling it. However, the reverse can also be true; In open source communities, security is often strong because more people can discover flaws and fix them before it’s too late.
- Competitive resistance. Certainly some companies resist calls for transparency because they want to protect their proprietary secrets. Surely this is understandable; companies and individuals have the right to protect their intellectual property against plagiarism or infringement. That said, copyright and trademark laws do not depend on whether the information is publicly available or not; presumably, tech companies could reveal how their technology works and still sue someone who tries to copy it to make money.
- Change tolerance and efficiency. Most tech companies pride themselves on constantly updating themselves. They develop new features, remove old bugs, improve security, and simplify things to make coding more efficient. These changes tend to roll out almost constantly, so if they were always exposed to public scrutiny or some kind of approval process, it could really slow things down. Some companies resist transparency simply to keep things efficient, streamlined, and unhindered.
- Inaccessibility. Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms are notoriously complex. In fact, in many cases, the developers themselves do not fully understand how they work. AI and ML operations occur in a “black box,” with systems learning to recognize patterns and make judgments without human knowledge. In these scenarios, full transparency is practically impossible.
Arguments for greater transparency
Of course, the arguments for greater transparency in the tech industry are numerous, including:
- Less opportunities for exploitation, fraud and other crimes. The lack of transparency makes it easy to hide controversial or illegal actions. If more information is reported and published, it is more difficult to get away with it.
- Public knowledge and consent. You can sign up for a free account with most of the big tech providers and start using their products right away. But do you really know what you’re getting into?
- Inspiration and innovation. Revealing the inner workings of major technology platforms could also serve to inspire entire generations of entrepreneurs to take those formulas and use them to innovate further.
Transparency may seem like a good idea in general, but its implementation creates more complications.
- Voluntarism. Transparency has some natural and inherent benefits for the organizations that practice it. Greater public trust, competitive differentiation, and higher employee morale are just the beginning. Unfortunately, we already benefit from this voluntaristic situation, so it is simply not enough for many transparency advocates.
- Government pressure or regulations. The most frequently described solution is some form of government intervention. For example, politicians could impose new laws or regulations that force technology companies to disclose certain things to the public or other items to legislators or a regulatory body. But what, exactly, do they have to reveal? Who is responsible for collecting and reviewing this information? What are the consequences of a breach of this agreement? Are certain types of information exempt, such as security-related information? This is a complicated route and one that could have long-lasting consequences, such as limiting the rate of innovation and competition in the industry, stimulating stagnation and the formation of monopolies.
- Public pressure. We could avoid imposing new laws by using public pressure. Public pressure itself can take many forms, from refusing to buy the latest smart speaker to holding a mass protest outside a tech company building. Tech companies have shown that they care deeply about public sentiment and will often make sacrifices or reverse past positions to appease the masses. If you are organized and insistent enough, a noisy group of people could motivate tech companies to reveal more information about specific activities, especially if they are backed by a real threat of boycott.
- Competitive pressure. It’s difficult to create competitive pressure artificially, but it can be a natural and reinforcing by-product of any of the systems listed above. If more companies choose to operate transparently, competitive pressure alone could encourage tech brands to take action, just to keep up with their rivals.
The bottom line
So what is the end result here? Should we all come together and push technology companies to be more transparent in their day-to-day operations? Should we favor government policies that pressure tech companies to disclose more information?
You will find people who insist that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and that transparency is an inherent good that should be imposed on all technology companies. You will also find people who insist that it is vital to protect property secrets and preserve both free innovation and operational efficiency.
The truth is that the issue of technological transparency is complex, with few simple and direct answers. In light of this, we must avoid making sweeping judgments or blanket changes in the industry.
Image credit: Ron Lach; Pexels; Thanks!