CHOICE's evolution has been heavily influenced by changes in
technology. The first subscriptions to CHOICE were sent by 'snail mail' and
manually processed by volunteers. Today, a new member can join online in a few
Technology has generally been a force for good, transforming
how we buy goods and services and how CHOICE helps you to decide what to buy.
But as technology becomes more powerful and more opaque, it also poses risks.
One of the biggest risks
comes from the new types of mega-businesses that use technology to build power
– the large tech platforms like Google, Apple and Facebook. They are, in
effect, large global marketplaces that provide services to businesses trying to
sell things, and to consumers who may wish to buy them.
Their global role gives them a level of power that could
never have been imagined a few decades ago. Facebook or Google can make or
break a business through a change in their algorithms that determines whether
or not we'll see it online. Consumer regulators around the world – including
our ACCC – are increasingly worried about how to rein in the power of these
large tech platforms, so they don't end up stifling competition and innovation.
Facebook or Google can make or break a business through a change in their algorithms that determines whether or not we'll see it online
Technology is also
changing markets in the way it allows businesses to use data to determine how
they deal with each of us. That's not all bad – in the best circumstances, it means
we get personalised service that's more relevant to our needs. But if used
carelessly or inappropriately, data can result in discrimination, with terrible
consequences for some consumers.
Our friends at Consumer Reports, the US equivalent of
CHOICE, have studied the data some car insurers use to determine premiums,
finding that some insurers charge people who work in poorer paying jobs or don't
have a college degree more for their insurance. Insurers argue that data shows
a correlation between these factors and the risk of an insurance claim. But if
this practice effectively means that people in lower paying jobs or from
particular racial backgrounds pay more for their insurance, you have to ask
whether it's fair.
When decisions like this
are made by algorithms or artificial intelligence, it's even harder for us to
know what is really going on – as the story on Airbnb on page 18 in this issue
Technology has transformed our lives in ways that are mostly good, but we can't celebrate those benefits without acknowledging the risks. The enormous power of businesses that control big tech and large sources of data means we're potentially at a tipping point where, unless we regulate the use of some technologies in the right way, it will be too late.