It is time for us to say good bye to the romantic view of Silicon Valley.
From the Facebook recent debacle, to Google exploiting kids’ audience with Youtube or letting app developers collect and share children’s data without previous approval, vaping company Juuls advertising to teenagers, EA and other gaming companies using casino-like tactics to sell in-app items called loot boxes, Tesla and other car companies using “pilot” as part of how they call their yet very limited autonomous driving systems. Examples of harmful business practices abound in Silicon Valley.
At the same time that we see those examples of disputable business practices, we also see many executives and employees of the big tech companies restricting the use of technology by their own families. Some of them are enrolling their kids on low-tech schools, where devices are strictly prohibited. And some of the most prominent executives of the very same companies promoting those dubious business practices are unanimous on one thing: they don’t want their own children to be exploited. They all agree with strict rules for what their children consume online. Steve Jobs limited how much technology their kids used at home. Bill and Melinda Gates both said that their kids were not allowed to use mobile devices until at least 14 years old. And even Mark Zuckerberg, said that he would rather have his daughter go outside and play – rather than stay inside and use a device to (sic) “socialize” on a an online network.
There is legislation in place trying to protect us and our privacy. In Europe, GDPR was recently enacted and it is a very progressive law. However, this is still not enough. Companies use all sorts schemes to bypass the laws. In the US, we have COPPA – a law that in theory protects under 13 years old children’s privacy. However, companies calculate that FTC, the government agency that responsible for enforcing COPPA, is not able to fully do its job and punish them. Take for example the video chat app Houseparty: it simply lets children skip informing their age, so the company evades COPPA completely.
As a society, if we don’t pay attention to this exploitation, we risk having a huge gap between those who blindly use harmful services and those who are aware of the risks of technology and are able to protect themselves. We need to pressure our congress to pass laws more attuned to the current state of our technology and the real impact on our children and our society. We need to pressure the FTC to enforce COPPA. We need to publicly callout all companies that are exploiting the less informed segment of our population – and to stop using their services and buying their products.