Trustworthy tech — what would it take?


Earlier this year we wrote about why we think a trustmark for digital could be an important step in changing attitudes towards how technologies are developed, used and maintained.

We recently held an event at the Co-op’s beautiful Federation building to explore this further, and it’s helped us evolve our ideas about how a trustmark might work.

It was fascinating to hear from Ian Drysdale about the challenges his team at Co-op Digital found as they researched attitudes to Internet of Things products, and encouraging to hear from Emer Coleman about building the community at The Federation. I presented a whistle-stop tour of ten aspects of responsible technology which we shared as posters and opened up to comments.

We were really inspired by the audience’s incredible passion for ethics, co-operatives, fairness and privacy — and the great ideas they had about putting them into practice.

We’re going to be prototyping at least one of the ideas from the audience — a Snopes-style site to help people figure out what’s responsible and what’s not (thanks Adrian McEwen — we think you mentioned this one!).

In our discussions at Federation House, and around our trustmark idea more generally, we’ve heard concerns about today’s technologies, and also hopes for the future, which are often expressed as values. So for example people see Uber as out of step because of the issues around flexible employment, a disregard for local laws, and sexism, or Google, because of their use of data and tax deals. Whereas collaborative, commons-based platforms like Wikipedia are seen as aligned positively with people’s values around sharing and learning.

The annotated posters show how people have a sense of good or bad, responsible or irresponsible technology.

annotated posters about different aspects of responsible technology [1/2]
annotated posters about different aspects of responsible technology [2/2]

These conversations suggest a different way of building a trustmark and how shared values could be used to underpin it.

Traditionally trustmarks — like the well-known BSI kitemark, or the organic certification — are based on standards which are rigorous, detailed and technical. These kind of standards can be good at defining and enforcing criteria for specific types of product, with specific aspects of concern such as safety, interoperability, or security. These things are important, but they don’t necessarily embody the values which trustworthy or responsible technology would deliver.

So we are thinking about a trustmark, built on values, which could help consumers identify products and services which reflect their priorities and concerns. A ‘trustworthy tech’ mark which doesn’t necessarily include a hugely detailed and specific standard, but a softer specification which can adapt to the different kinds of technologies people encounter, showing how values are embodied in the creation and operation of the tech and in the systems around it.

This would allow us to address the broad range of technologies a consumer might be interested in, the complexity of individual products/services and the rapid changes in internet technology. You would need a lot of standards to cover all the different types of technology someone might make choices about today — banking websites, connected cars, fitness wearables, home thermostats, online games, and so on — let alone products and services which might appear tomorrow.

The values-based approach will also allow us to acknowledge and build on the great work going on within specific technologies, such as Responsible Robotics or Ethical AI and fold them into an overarching approach to responsible technology. We think it’s really important to have this broader view because many technical products, services and systems don’t fit neatly into one niche technology area and ethical considerations are particularly relevant in the ways different components of a system fit together.

In the coming months we’ll be working with partners like Bethnal Green Ventures to test our ideas around responsible technology, and how a values-based responsible tech mark might work in practice, with businesses at different stages of maturity.

Our work so far has shown there’s a real appetite for sustainable and trustworthy digital technologies, products and services. The next step is to show that it’s possible.