The digital world is at risk without deep reform of the way companies treat data and governments regulate it, according to Lorenzo Milans del Bosch, a partner in US management consultants Oliver Wyman.

A survey it conducted involving more than 67,000 people in ten countries showed 50% prefer to maintain their privacy and avoid sharing information while 22% did not mind doing so to receive a more personalised experience. The rest were neutral.

“Consumers worry about the way companies capture their data and influence everything from their news and music feeds to the advertisements suggesting what they should buy and where,” said del Bosch in a commentary piece for the World Economic Forum think tank.

“This mistrust threatens to become for the digital economy what carbon dioxide is for the physical world: an unseen pollution that threatens the sustainability of data ecosystems.”

A separate Oliver Wyman survey of US consumers showed people rate major global social media brands lower than those in healthcare, finance, media, retail and consumer products on questions such as whether the brand understands their needs, shares their values, always has their interests at heart, and does more good than bad for society.

Respondents also expressed less willingness to share data with social media companies than other companies.

“That finding may seem paradoxical given that people in practice share large amounts of data, some very personal, with social media companies. Yet each new breach or misinformation campaign erodes public trust and risks a tipping point in consumer willingness to share,” wrote del Bosch, who specialises in communications, media and technology for Oliver Wyman.

He urged companies to be open about the types of information they collect, how they keep it secure, how the data will be used, what benefits consumers can expect, and whether data will be shared and for what purposes. Any shared data should be anonymous.

“Transparency needs to extend beyond data itself to the algorithms companies use to tailor news feeds, sell advertising, and make decisions on things like hiring and lending,” he added.

“For policymakers, building trust and ensuring a level playing field should be the guiding principles of any new regulatory initiatives,” he said, pointing out the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) do not address issues like misinformation or algorithmic accountability.

Del Bosch acknowledged there are gains to be had from an online world. “The benefits of digitisation are growing. Even before Covid-19 struck, digital goods and services were expanding four times faster than the overall economy in the US.

“Then video conferencing, online shopping, telemedicine and the like, enabled tens of millions of people around the world to adapt after the pandemic erupted last year.”

Respondents to the core survey live in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Spain, the UK and the US.

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