Google, Innovation & Trust

Today a piece I wrote for Harvard Business Review hits the “virtual” stands.  There are times when researching a hot topic is a curse (Mr. Snowden made privacy and surveillance touchy) but there are other times when it is a blessing.  The Google European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) decision  or “Right to be Forgotten” case has given me a chance to showcase the importance of privacy and data protection in the business world.

I have written a few pieces about data as it pertains to the financial services (here and here), and on the clash of US and EU privacy cultures and its impact on transatlantic counter-terrorism cooperation. The HBR piece focuses on how privacy can lead to profit and it draws heavily upon my interviews with the IT and corporate communities while I was in Europe.

In the popular imagination, the internet exists as a borderless world. In reality, there are many internets, and the rules that govern each of them reflect local beliefs about the role and responsibility of technology within society. The ECJ ruling classified Google as a data controller, and therefore under obligation to remove certain links to personal data upon an individual’s request, and it is a prime example of how localized privacy cultures and laws can assert themselves beyond their sovereign borders.  Although it specifically mentions search engines, it has implications for multinationals as well.

I think that the IT world was shocked by the ECJ decision because it holds the borderless internet view, it sees any curb on the free flow of information as censorship and a threat to its business model, and it is accustomed to the US-based view of data as property where corporations self-regulate data collection and usage.  Also, the Judge Advocate’s opinion, which concluded Google was not a data controller, set expectations for the final outcome of the case.

As the EU itself has been trying to figure out the legalities of balancing human rights with good commerce, the legislative ambiguities of the EU Data Protection Directive have in the past provided businesses, including European companies, with some wiggle room.  The ECJ verdict tightened the space to wiggle in some instances, but legal instruments are notoriously difficult to rely upon for definitions or guidelines for enforcement when applied in practice.

Problems of balance remain.  There is the balance of responsibilities between controllers and processors (are these distinctions even the way forward? One interviewee said we need to think of this in terms of accountability), the balance between human rights and national security, and human rights and the economy, the balance among differing views of privacy, and the realities that the physical structures in which the internet operates are transnational, which make it difficult to restrict the flow of data to certain transmission paths, let alone implement regional or national standards when doing so.  “You shouldn’t, and can’t, make Europe an island.”

No, the ECJ ruling does not mean you can be completely forgotten once you are on the global information superhighway, but it does mean that there are opportunities for government and business to innovate how data is managed, transferred, and used.  In short, legal instruments are not enough, the private sector needs to take privacy beyond compliance because its clients are demanding protections even when the law doesn’t require it.  In the HBR piece, I assert that this is part of a growing trend, spearheaded by consumers themselves (in the US, they talk about consumers, in the EU they speak of individuals) who believe that corporations feel entitled to use every bit of information they can find as part of a ‘big data’ marketing plan to endlessly feed algorithms for their own profit.  American IT firms did not help this image either.   EU legislators and privacy activists were not accustomed to the aggressive nature of US style K-Street lobbying in Brussels as IT firms campaigned against aspects of the new EU Data Protection Regulation.  The Snowden revelations only added fuel to their ire.  But this disgust has not been confined to the EU, Americans are increasingly suspicious of where their information flows end up too.

I have spoken about trust on this blog before regarding regulatory-corporate relations, but it applies here as well.  Corporations have to maintain the trust of their clients to keep them, whether they refer to them as individuals or consumers, and treat their data with respect. Individuals have a strong sense of ownership over their data because it reflects their personal choices, and while some consumers love the convenience that data analytics provides, some do not.  So I ask (somewhat rhetorically because I know there are some efforts, but will tackle them in later posts) businesses to consider services for those who want (and legally demand) more control over their data.

The HBR article touches upon some fundamental issues and I hope to follow up with another piece that connects data privacy to data security.  Unfortunately it is often treated as a separate issue, but privacy, security, and trust are endemic to any business relationship and when done right, they are, again, profitable.

It’s a Wrap, Folks. Well, not quite.

 I’m back in the US from living Europe for 4 ½ months and I am energized and exhausted at the same time.  The past week has been a jet-lagged frenzy of unpacking, catching up with family and friends, and personal reflection.

In sum, I feel really good.  I am grateful for the opportunity to travel and for the people who have been generous with their time and views, and for everyone who made this trip possible.  Which is also why this blog suffered a bit – I was nearly constantly going somewhere and meeting someone! Nothing to complain about there.

I did the majority of this trip solo, and it might sound strange but the confidence that you get from traveling alone is a lesson in confidence and leadership.  You are responsible for all your decisions and you will feel the consequences of them too, but as inaction is not an option it forces you to take those leaps, no matter how large and small.  Things that seemed essential to your life when you are at home in your comfort zone become non-existent or less important.  You learn to adapt and absorb because you have to.  You learn to pause, but not cease.

The value of pause was among the best understandings I gained from this experience.  People underestimate pause, taking it for hesitation or uncertainty.  While that might be true in some circumstances, a pause can be used skillfully as a part of a process.

Music, for example, embraces the pause.  It can control the actions of various actors in a performance in order to guide the tempo, create a certain mood for the audience, and serve as an instructional tool.

  •  Fermata: extends a note or instructs a pause until signaled by the conductor.
  • General Pause or Long Pause: used for longer durations at the discretion of the performer or composer that “interrupt the normal tempo of a composition.”
  • Caesura or Grand Pause: “often a sudden stop in the performance with an equally sudden resumption of sound.” Metrical time is not counted.
  • Breath Mark: directs a vocalist or instrumentalist to take a breath, but not intended to interrupt the tempo.

Pausing to develop an idea. Pausing to choose the right words.  Pausing to realize you chose the wrong words. Pausing to listen. Pausing to observe and consider.  Pausing to enjoy.  Pausing for weakness. Pausing for strength. Pausing to communicate. Pausing to let others be heard.  Pausing your expectations. Pause to allow the world to infringe upon your space.

Pausing doesn’t mean you stop doing something – it is a temporary (and focused) halt before moving again.  The results of that pause may result in continuance, a change in direction, or a return.

My time as a Fulbright-Schumaner was in itself a pause from my norm. I was placed in foreign worlds that enabled me to focus on interesting people and places that contributed and strengthened my understanding of my research.  There is so much I have to follow-up on professionally, and I will get to all of it, with appropriate pauses in all their glorious forms.

But personally speaking the pause has been an enriching lesson that there are periods of time that are necessary to stand still.  There is a time and place for everything as a popular saying goes, and the pause is no exception.  Too often we forget that recognizing opportunity usually takes the form of a Eureka moment where you disengage yourself from the norm, for just a moment, to see it.

So let us pause, for tomorrow we begin anew.