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Tech Companies Losing Public Trust

David Street
3 min read
May 15, 2020

Trust in tech companies is falling. Two recent pieces of news confirm the continued downward trend.

The first was an update of the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index. A poll showed that only around 30% of Americans would opt in to a cell phone-based contact tracing system. Worse, a system designed by major tech companies was less likely to inspire respondents to opt in than one designed by cell phone companies. 

A casual observer would conclude that Google is less trusted than Verizon. We can’t make that specific conclusion based on this data, but that’s where sentiment seems to be heading. This is almost impossible to imagine for anyone who remembers the optimism around tech companies like Google and Facebook just a decade ago.

The second was the announcement that Sidewalk Labs, a Google sister company, canceled its smart city project in Toronto. The Sidewalk Labs CEO cited financial reasons linked to the pandemic. The project had been plagued by privacy concerns from the beginning, however. At one point, Sidewalk Labs had to promise that it would not sell personal data or use it for advertising purposes. Many directly associated the project with Google and its business model, which didn’t inspire much trust.

Less than a year ago, the Pew Research Center published data showing that more and more Americans were doubting if tech companies were having a positive impact on society. The change in opinion was even shared by Democrats and Republicans.

This trend is a problem not only for tech companies but for society as a whole. The COVID-19 tracing application is a perfect example. We can choose whether to involve tech companies in some public works projects. But much technology, like smartphones, is bound to be produced by large for-profit corporations. If people don’t trust those corporations, it’s hard to use that technology for the public good. Right now, using smartphones for contact tracing would improve public health and reduce deaths from COVID-19. The 33% of Americans trusting enough to use the smartphone apps is too little.

Google and Facebook are famous for their lofty goals. Facebook wants to “Give people a voice.” Google tells us, “You can make money without doing evil.” It’s not clear that either is in a position to occupy any kind of moral high ground. They are more known for making huge amounts of money than they are for the noble acts described in their corporate mission statements. The falling trust indicates that people increasingly see a contradiction. Either the behavior of such tech giants needs to change or their idealistic mission statements. 

Unfortunately, this lack of trust could affect whole sectors, well beyond just the famous tech giants: Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Tech companies would do well to pay more attention to their public image. And no, that probably doesn’t mean promising to save the world using a different slogan.

Tech companies are flying high right now. Short-term profits don’t seem to be at risk. But the erosion of trust is a long-term risk factor they can’t afford to ignore.