Big tech: Why ‘accepting all’ is no longer acceptable

Allan Dunlavy 10 Jan 2022

Big tech companies have breached our rights to privacy and taken away something that we should be able to control– our personal information. It’s time to call them out.

When I started at Schillings more than 10 years ago the world and our lives were very different. The firm was a niche legal business and Instagram had not yet been invented. As a team we were united in the belief that what was happening in the media industry was not ok – something we needed to take action against.

The noughties were a time of media excess, and high-profile individuals were having their privacy ignored and invaded by the press and paparazzi in the name of entertainment on a daily basis. Libel and defamation protections had been available to clients for a long time, but privacy protection was sorely lacking. The result was a media and paparazzi that ran roughshod over everyone’s privacy – either because you were high-profile or were caught up in a topical news story, like a police investigation. None of this was right or fair – but the law had not caught up quickly enough to help them.

So, we set out to make changes. We worked with a number of courageous people who were prepared to take a stand, and we set precedents that created privacy protections for everyone and have changed the way privacy law now looks in this country. Naturally, we’ve encountered opposition along the way, many people at the time didn’t believe that privacy was something that could or should be protected – but when you believe in something and you stand up for it, not everyone is going to agree with you.

Times change – Schillings is now a multi-disciplinary business of over 100 people, operating from London and New York. We believe that individual privacy is a hugely important right and protecting it is crucial – and we have been fighting for this since day one. But, once again, we have identified that something isn’t right in our society – something my colleagues and I think the law must and can make right.

Over the last decade or so something has been happening in our culture that’s infringed on all our lives and rights. It’s something alarming – but so insidious we barely noticed it happening. It’s something that impacts everyone – from school children to rock stars; from CEOs to Uber drivers; from the young to the old.

It appears to me that big technology companies have been working furiously under the radar to take advantage of our lack of technical knowledge in order to hoodwink us to collect, collate and sell our information. They’ve repeatedly and flagrantly breached our rights to privacy and taken away something we should own and be able to control – our personal information. Any consent that they may profess to have obtained is, in my eyes, completely negated by the tactics deployed. They’ve used it to manipulate us in ways we’re not aware of, it’s been packaged and sold until it creates false impressions of us, and they’ve made a lot of money in the process.

For the most part, I do not believe this has been done maliciously; although it has clearly been done covertly – nor do I think technology is inherently a force for evil. The upsides of our connected world do, in my opinion, outweigh the downsides. Without technology, the strange isolation of 2020 and 2021 would have been unbearable and it would have been impossible to continue to function as businesses and people.

But I do believe it is wrong to take other people’s property and profit from it – particularly if you are not fully transparent about the process. And I believe it’s wrong – and undemocratic – to manipulate information people see without being open about it.

Of course, most of us are now aware this is happening. We have come to understand that our lives and private information are being intruded on in massive ways ; but most have neither the time nor ability to fully understand how and why and what can be done about it. Talking about data regulation is a quick way to ensure you never get invited to dinner with friends again – believe me, I’ve tried. Most people tend to be resigned to the belief that this is just how it is if we want to use a wealth of social media and technology that, frankly, makes our lives much better. The view has been that this is an unavoidable and inevitable negative by-product of all the good that we want from social media and the Internet.

“Just how it is” and “inevitable” are phrases we take issue with at Schillings. Yes, the horse is bolting – but it’s not too late to close the stable door and take back control. My colleague Keith Schilling has always said that great lawyers “don’t apply the law – we create the law”, and this has served us well. The law is not a static entity – it’s a shield that sometimes needs poking and prodding to make sure it’s working and fit for purpose. So, we’re setting out on a journey to do just that.

Over the next years, Schillings is on a mission to take a stand to help all of us take back control of our own information. We believe being forced to just “accept all” is unacceptable. We also believe technology can work for us and not against us and technology companies can be successful and not steal our data and breach our privacy in the process.

We’ll be seeking out other experts in this field to assist us to find solutions, we’ll be sharing things we can all do to better protect ourselves, we’ll be seeking and developing ways to influence regulation – and above all we’ll be using the tool we believe is the best way to make changes; the law. We are actively seeking cases where we can again stand with courageous people to set precedents and right this wrong.

You’ll be hearing more in due course – but we can’t do this alone. To make meaningful change we need a movement. We want to hear from you – whether you agree with our stance, whether you have questions, whether you’re an expert in this area, or simply fed up of what’s happening. Reply to this post or drop me a note.

I’ll leave you with a statement we turn to a lot in our firm; “If something isn’t right, then do something about it”. What will you do?