Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer gestures as she speaks during a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, the opening day of the World Economic Forum. (Michel Euler/AP)
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer gestures as she speaks during a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, the opening day of the World Economic Forum. (Michel Euler/AP)

At Davos, tech giants square off over online privacy Add to ...

It’s traditional to start off the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland with a panel of Nobel Laureate economists talking about the global economy. This year the high profile opening was about the digital revolution. The speakers were Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T; Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo; Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce; John Chambers, CEO of Cisco; and Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT. The moderator was Forrester Research CEO George Colony.

More Related to this Story

The session reflects the theme of Davos, which is that profound political, economic, social and, above all, technological forces are transforming our lives, communities and institutions. Rapidly crossing geographic, gender and generational boundaries, digital technologies are shifting power from traditional hierarchies to networked heterarchies. If you want to know where society is headed, follow the technology.

Mr. Colony started off by asking what technologies had changed the panelists’ lives.

Mr. Benioff surprised the audience by talking about his Fitbit wristband. Explaining that it helped him lose 30 pounds and changed his life, he gave an unsettling example. Michael Dell called him a few days ago asking if Mr. Benioff was okay. Mr. Dell said “I’m your friend on Fitbit and I see you haven’t worked out for three days.” Mr. Dell was right as Mr. Benioff had had a cold. Mr. Benioff wondered, ‘what does it mean?’ that people know his heart rate, glucose levels, fitness, or if he has a cold.

He said a new Philips toothbrush is Wi-Fi based and has GPS. When you go to the dentist, he won’t ask if you brushed. He will log in to your toothbrush account. Soon there will be one trillion connected sensors, and we will be connected in phenomenal new ways. The peace dividend of the cellphone wars is 1.5 billion smartphones today.

I was tempted to ask him if Michael Dell also knows his dental hygiene habits.

Mr. Peterson said the explosion of bandwidth is hard to describe, and that consumer demand seems insatiable.

Mr. Stephenson said AT&T would be taking its fiber network to one million businesses and households in the next three years. The biggest deployment is fiber to cell sites, and that smartphones are driving automation of the home.

Mr. Chambers from Cisco said 10 billion devices will soon be connected to the Internet. Over the next 10 years this will account for $19-trillion in economic value.

Ms. Mayer from Yahoo said it’s all about the apps enabling the sharing economy. Last Friday 150,000 people let strangers stay in their homes via airbnb.com. More than 55 per cent of people would consider renting out their cars to strangers. The average person checks his or her mobile phone 150 times a day. By the end of this year Yahoo will have more mobile traffic than PC traffic.

Mr. Colony tried to stir the pot by saying that none of the CEOs are from disruptive companies except maybe Salesforce. Everyone disagreed.

Mr. Colony raised the issue of Edward Snowden and the NSA spying revelations (the elephant in the room) posing the question: “What would you say to Obama if he were in the room?”

Ms. Mayer said she wants transparency, saying companies need to know what data is being collected and how it will be used, and they need to have the rights to tell the public.

We need to this to re-establish trust with our users. We already have transparency reports for local governments – we want to be able to provide that information to our customers and the public, she said.

Mr. Benioff agreed that we need transparency. Privacy will drive customer choice. Customers will want to know where they have their data and what’s done with it. Vendors need to also provide complete transparency themselves – about what they do with data. Consumers and business want to know everything.

Mr. Peterson, in contrast, said customers can’t have control. We all need national security.

I listened to this discussion closely, because I think transparency is essential. I’ve been writing about this for 15 years. In the past we only worried about Big Brother governments assembling detailed dossiers about us. Then came what privacy advocates called Little Brother – corporations that collect data from their customers.

Companies such as Amazon want to know more and more about what makes each of us tick – our motivations, behaviour, attitudes, and buying habits. The good news is that they can use this intimate knowledge to give us highly customized services. The bad news is that once these digital mirror images are compiled they are rarely, if ever, deleted. They can be used inappropriately and even end up being sold to third parties.

Now there is a new unexpected threat – ourselves. Call it Baby Brother. With the meteoric rise of social media, we are increasingly willing accomplices in undermining our own privacy rights. Before Facebook arrived, who would have predicted that hundreds of millions of people would voluntarily log on to the Internet and record detailed minute-by-minute data about themselves, their activities, their likes and dislikes, and so on?

Ultimately, in order to properly protect privacy, all of us will need to be vigilant about our own online behaviour.

I left the room encouraged about the explosive growth of the digital revolution but concerned about whether leaders of the industry are prepared to step up to the tough social issues. Other writers at the meeting trumpeted the high tech leaders’ challenge to Obama about the NSA spying.

Personally I wish one of them had said something to the effect: “The digital revolution has numerous dark side issues that need to be managed, one of them being the potential destruction of everything that we’ve come to know as our right to privacy. We need our governments to be defenders of this and other basic rights rather than the problem.”

Don Tapscott is CEO of the think-tank Tapscott Group, and Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. He is the author of 14 books most recently (with Anthony D. Williams) MacroWikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet. He’s writing about this year’s Davos for The Globe and Mail. @dtapscott

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular