The tech industry is in danger of becoming more remote than ever

I'm not quite sure why anyone is surprised at the tone and breadth of criticism of technology companies outlined in The Financial Times this week.

Google: Questions over trust
Google: Questions over trust

We have been here many times before, whether it is Microsoft’s prolonged battle with the European Commission or simmering complaints about the isolated bubble that is Silicon Valley.

In each situation I would argue the industry has done a poor job protecting its brand and communicating its value to stakeholders. 

There are certainly many examples of great IT companies delivering real benefits to society and enterprise, but post-recession it feels as though industry leaders are out of step with the political, economic and social context. 

And that disconnect is now turning an emotive debate into very tangible business and financial threats to the technology industry ‘popstars'.

In Germany Uber, the taxi app, is combating German legislators, who have banned it.

In Brussels the ‘right to be forgotten’ legislation has forced the internet service providers to go on a charm offensive and policy makers have laid down the gauntlet by rejecting proposals for a settlement of its anti-trust investigation into Google. 

Industry analysts are even suggesting Ed Snowden could have a major impact on the bottom line for enterprise cloud computing vendors.

 According to the Financial Times the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation contends that vendors could lose $22bn–$45bn over the next three years.

While surveys such as the Edelman Trust Barometer have consistently suggested the technology industry is the most trusted of its surveyed sectors, I would suggest that the IT community should not be surprised by the stark realities of increasing discontent. 

Yes Snowden was a huge catalyst, but the tensions have been lurking for some time. 

For many years enterprise tech vendors have been criticised heavily for their approach to customer service, while IT implementations are regularly named and shamed for failing to deliver and costing the taxpayer millions.

Meanwhile CEOs earn astronomical salaries compared with the rest of us mere mortals and very few of those CEOs happen to be women.   

It would be dangerous to suggest the cause of discontent is simply one thing.

In Europe criticisms have been raised in equal measure in relation to culture, society and regulation, as well as perceived unfair competitive advantage.

It is clear, though, that some commentators are questioning the benefits of technology in society and no longer see equity in the relationship between IT companies and their customers.

For many years technology brands have relied on the suggestion that the disruption they bring to traditional models is all about creating a fairer, more equal and innovative world.

Often this disruption has relied on an unspoken bargain, where free services are exchanged in return for unfettered access to personal information. 

Looking ahead tech giants want to extend that 'deal' into areas such as banking, automotive and healthcare. 

Unless the industry recognises and addresses concerns around the role of technology in society then I believe it is very unlikely politicians, regulators and customers will allow them to extend that reach.

That could be easier said than done.

It may be challenging to convince so many freewheeling entrepreneurs, used to speaking their minds, to adapt their approach.

However, as communicators, if they do not learn the lessons of the past and adjust their approach, we are fast reaching the point when tech CEOs will be seeking advice from Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary on ways to perform volte face.

This should not be necessary, but at the moment the great and good are handing ammunition to the industry's critics on a daily basis.

The Financial Times article can be read here.

Cairbre Sugrue is founder and principal of Sugrue Communications

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