Building digital trust to build Australia’s digital economy

The digital economy runs on digital trust, so governments and businesses better make sure Australians don’t have cause to become any more cynical. 

Steve Jobs recruited the CEO of Pepsi in 1983 by asking him, “Do you want to sell sugar-water the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?” That Jobs was changing the world for the better was so self-evident that it didn’t need to be verbalised. For close to half a century, most people, including most Australians, were as techno-utopian as Jobs and exhibited high levels of what is now called digital trust. 

Tech’s bright-future past 

For many years, the citizens of first-world nations believed visionary technology entrepreneurs were bringing into being a (decidedly non-dystopian) sci-fi future. 

One where Larry Page and Sergey Brin were organising all the world’s information. 

One where Mark Zuckerberg was making the world more open and connected. 

One where Jeff Bezos was providing the lowest possible prices, the best available selection, and the utmost convenience. 

And one where Steve Jobs was regularly releasing universe-denting gadgets like the iPhone.

The fall 

The tech companies always had their critics, but until circa 2016, those critics didn’t get much of a hearing. Then the Cambridge Analytica scandal opened the ‘techlash’ floodgates. 

To recap, millions came to believe the personal data of Facebook users had been illegitimately used to get Donald Trump elected and get Brexit over the line. Antagonism towards tech companies soon became a bipartisan affair as social media platforms were accused of censoring news and views unfavourable to progressive causes.    

While there were no seismic political events in Australia in 2016, Australians were also becoming less digitally trusting during this period. No fewer than 2.5 million Australians opted out of the My Health digital health system roll-out in 2018-2019. (Around 10 per cent of Australians still don’t trust government departments and private businesses to use their health data appropriately and store it safely.) 

In 2019, Edelman’s ‘Trust in Technology’ global survey found that only 39% of those surveyed in “developed markets” agreed that “Tech is putting the welfare of its customers ahead of profits”. It also found 52% of Australians agreed that “Tech companies are not doing enough to prepare society for the full impact of emerging new technologies”. The same year, the World Economic Forum declared, “Trust in digital – among consumers, employees and citizens – is eroding. We stand at a critical inflection point with a new imperative to restore the digital trust needed to drive business growth and shared prosperity.”

For half a decade now, digitisation has proceeded apace even as Australians were becoming more concerned about the collection, storage and use of their data. And much more suspicious about the motivations and activities of companies such as Facebook, Huawei, Twitter, Uber, Alphabet and Amazon. 

In 2021, the Australian Government released Digital Economy Strategy 2030It stated that “our goal is for Australia to be a world-leading digital economy and society by 2030” and argued such a goal was feasible because “we are early adopters of technology, we are known for our robust regulatory systems and we are a democratic society”.     

Waxing faith in technology and humans 

Australians don’t behave as if we distrust technology. Internet usage and mobile phone ownership are near universal. Most Australians have a Facebook profile and visit YouTube regularly. Millions of us also use Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Twitter and Tinder. We visit Airtasker to arrange to have individuals we don’t know come into our homes to complete tasks. We go to Airbnb to rent out our holiday homes to people we’ve never met. Thanks to Uber, we no longer think twice about getting into a car with a stranger. We’re laidback about baring our souls on Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Telegram. We forego cash, confident that we can buy whatever we need through Afterpay, Apple Pay, Google Pay or PayPal. Increasingly, we use e-commerce sites such as Officeworks, Chemist Warehouse, and and trust we will get what we pay for in advance.  

And, as has been widely publicised, Australians soon adjusted to the turbocharging of digital transformation caused by the pandemic.  

Waning faith in technology businesses and governments

People trust their devices. They also trust their fellow device users. Online marketplaces, ride-sharing and dating apps and review sites wouldn’t have taken off if their customers didn’t trust most people to behave ethically most of the time. However, it seems people no longer entirely trust technology companies. And many people, in Australia and elsewhere, believe national governments are either unwilling or unable to appropriately regulate those companies

What the research suggests     

2020 research into levels of digital trust in 42 advanced economies conducted by Tufts University found Australians were in the middle of the digital-trust pack. The research didn’t reveal a simple correlation between how digitally trusting a nation’s citizens were and the digital maturity of that nation. But digitally mature nations such as China, the US, the UK, Singapore, Japan, Israel, Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands performed strongly on some or all of the four digital trust metrics used (i.e. attitudes, behaviour, environment and experience). 

Once again, there’s no straightforward correlation between the strength of a nation’s regulation and the strength of its digital economy. But the evidence suggests, in democratic nations at least, a correlation does exist.

The challenges ahead

It may be the case that most tech company CEOs aren’t sociopaths. That elections and referendums can’t be swung by hostile foreign powers gaming social media platforms. That AI isn’t going to reduce billions of workers into a state of UBI-dependent serfdom or lead to World War III. That democracies aren’t about to introduce Orwellian social credit systems. 

But if that’s what a significant proportion of a nation’s citizens fear may be the case, it’s unlikely that nation can look forward to becoming “a world-leading digital economy and society”. 

The introduction of the GDPR in 2018, along with the tightening up of data privacy laws in many developed nations around the same time, brought the Wild West days of the Internet to a close. The challenge now facing nations aspiring to become world-leading digital economies is rebuilding the digital trust that was diminished during the Wild West era. The specific challenge facing Australian politicians and public servants now the all-consuming COVID crisis is finally ending is, to quote AustCyber’s CEO, to “create the conditions for Australia to improve its global competitiveness through the necessary digital governance”.   

The lesson from the Nordic nations appears to be that getting the digital governance right creates the high levels of digital trust that allows certain middle powers to punch above their economic weight. 

Broadly speaking, the Australian Government have got digital governance right. Indeed, through initiatives such as the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, the Consumer Data Right, the Digital Business Plan and Deregulation Agenda, as well as the commitment to e-invoicing and modernising business registers, the Australian Government can even claim to be taking “a world-leading position on the regulation and settings needed for an accelerating digital economy

But the Australian Government will face many new regulatory challenges between now and 2030 as AI becomes omnipresent, the Internet of Things expands, biometrics gathers momentum, blockchain disrupts a range of industries and the metaverse starts to take shape. There’s no room for complacency if the nation’s 2030 goals are to be achieved. 

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