FleishmanHillard’s new report assesses the global ‘Techlash’

Crispin Maenpaa

FleishmanHillard’s has released a new global report entitled: From Darlings to Damaged: Managing the technology sector’s reputation in an age of heightened scrutiny. The report includes survey results from 1,000 consumers each from the US and the UK about their feelings and engagement with technology companies as well as insights and opinions from industry experts, heads of tech companies, academics and FleishmanHillard’s tech specialists from around the world. The article below was written by Crispin Mäenpää from FleishmanHillard Brussels.

Backlash to Techlash: Europe’s approach to greater tech responsibility

When campaigning for the role of President of the European Commission in 2014, Jean Claude Juncker convivially commented that ‘you don’t have to be a techie to believe in technology’. This positive belief in technology was apparent in his declarations that Europe’s €250 billion of additional growth was “paved with tablets and smartphones”.

However, a series of events have since moved the tech sector from the lime light to the spot light. The political will in Europe has soured and, in 2018, influential MEPs like Guy Verhofstadt, President of Europe’s Liberal Group, declared their intent to ‘take back control of the internet’ as it’s causing the ‘erosion of liberal democracy’.

Less positive sentiment towards tech companies developed gradually in Europe and was further hardened as policymakers encountered a steady stream of tech scandals. Yahoo’s 2016 announcement that it had suffered a significant data breach affecting 500 million users in 2014 was a watershed moment in this sentiment change. The alleged tax avoidance of Apple and Amazon were other critical moments and finally, the Cambridge Analytica scandal truly changed the conversation.

These incidents reinforced a common perception amongst European policymakers, at both the EU and national level, that tech companies were not taking responsibility for their actions. They ascertained that these reoccurring scandals demonstrated pervasive legacy issues wherein tech companies had failed to remedy or rectify problems.

For Europe, the techlash became a question of responsibility.

Accordingly, new legislation attempted to make tech companies responsible for the content they shared and the taxes they paid, Google was deemed responsible for anti-competitive behavior with a total EU antitrust bill of €8.2 billion ($9.3 billion) over a three-year period, and the (in)famous General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) received unprecedented political goodwill as clear responsibility came to data processing and data breaches.

Importantly, the nature of the techlash in Europe means that there is space for tech companies to assume a more engaged and active role, and thus demonstrate their willingness to take responsibility and not simply ‘move fast and break things’.

We’ve already seen prominent companies step up to the mark as both Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg have recognised that their companies have ‘responsibilities’ and openly declared the need for regulatory assistance.

In 2019, the European elections will ensure ongoing pressure and media soundbites about Europe’s pervasive techlash. However, this political narrative should not mask the abundant opportunities predicated by a newly elected Parliament and a new political leadership of the European Commission.

If we want to try and put the worst of the techlash behind us, significant work needs to be done. Despite electoral changeover in the EU elections; tech shall continue to be a constant on the European agenda. Only an engaged tech sector can begin regaining European policymaker’s initial belief in technology and try to repave the path with tablets and smartphones.