James Mullarkey: Charities must change their relationship with big tech firms

We must have red lines in place and withdraw access to our brands, supporters and networks if they are crossed

James Mullarkey
James Mullarkey

If there is one area of digital where charities should be leading it is digital ethics and the responsible use of technology. We should know all about doing the right thing, shouldn’t we?

I was lucky enough to attend the techUK Digital Ethics Summit recently. Apart from me, there was almost no representation from the third sector. Some of the big tech firms were there, as were government ministers, academia and businesses of all shapes and sizes.

The pitch of the event was simple: we don’t want to replicate the surveillance-based, privacy invading technology culture of Silicon Valley or be using tech as the lynchpin for authoritarian control, like China. Everyone in the room agreed that we want the UK to build a different tech narrative, with responsibility and ethics at its core. Far from seeing it as a nice-to-have, successive speakers spoke about this as being an essential competitive advantage.

Throughout 2018, Facebook had to grapple with what felt like daily scandals such as the Cambridge Analytica debacle, the theft of data from millions of accounts and a pitifully abject response to dealing with various hate-speech controversies. Google was secretly building a government-censored search engine for the Chinese market and Amazon suffered too many exposés of its terrible working practices to mention.

We’ve seen the release of several documents to provide ethical guidance to the sector when working with third parties including tech firms: the Charity Digital Code, the Nationcal Council for Voluntary Organisations' Charity Ethical Principles and the Code of Fundraising Practice, to name but three. They all urge organisations look at the values of potential partners before working with them to check how they align with their own.

Name me a charity in the UK that believes in tax-avoidance, unaccountability to governments, lack of transparency and questionable attitudes to abiding by our laws. Anyone? Now name me a charity that has closed its Facebook page, given back the Google grant or rejected Amazon Smile on moral grounds.

I’ve spent the past few months trying to engage with people in the sector on this, with little success. Informally, some have told me they don’t feel they can question their relationship with Facebook because of the money it brings in. They ask me what alternative I could suggest that could match it. I don’t know of one.

But I know this sector has been prepared to ask difficult questions of itself when it's needed to. Shouldn’t we have red lines in place with big tech firms and withdraw access to our brands, supporters and networks if they are crossed?

I can see how this has happened. My digital peers and I have spent that past decade trying to convince our bosses that digital is important and more resources and cash are needed to do it better.

Perhaps this struggle has stripped us of the confidence to take the next step, to explain that there are some downsides to digital as well as the enormous upsides, and consideration must be given to both; to explain that the game has changed and will keep changing. Where first we had to help people get comfortable with this new world, now we must help them become uncomfortable with it.

I’m the first to admit the answer to this is far from simple and will be different for everyone depending on their own circumstances. A good starting point could be a discussion and the space to talk openly without worrying what it might do to our career prospects.

I’m taking this opportunity to reach out to people in the sector who have more questions than answers about relationships with the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook. Get in touch. I promise I will listen without judgement. Maybe if there are a few of us, we can figure out what to do about it.

James Mullarkey has worked in digital for a number of non-profit organisations over the past 15 years. This post represents his personal views

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