Dealing with End User Technology Backlash

On my office door is a cartoon showing a bus with an ad on it proclaiming, "Tired of all the technology? Visit our website: www.luddites.com." While the cartoon is humorous, what’s not funny is the extent to which the digital revolution has sparked a neo-Luddite backlash from a broad spectrum of ideological and economic interests. Whether from companies seeking government protection from more nimble e-commerce competitors or political advocates decrying new IT applications as a threat to jobs, civil liberties and privacy, CIOs seeking to implement new systems may find themselves facing unexpected and sometimes powerful opposition.

Luddites are hardly new. (They got their name from Englishman Ned Ludd, whose followers sabotaged textile factories at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.) What is new is how well-organized these neo-Luddites are, how seriously they are taken by the media and how effectively they use the political system to advance their agendas.

This growing array of neo-Luddites views new technology as a threat to basic values and lifestyles. Groups from the liberal ACLU to the conservative Eagle Forum are quick to oppose IT innovations, especially those that might be perceived as threatening civil liberties.

What is especially troubling is that in contrast to the past, when Luddites were often consigned to the fringes of political debate, today they enjoy widespread legitimacy. Twenty years ago a person who would write that the government plans to forcibly implant radio frequency identification (RFID) chips in Americans, akin to the mark of the beast as prophesied in the Book of Revelation, would be dismissed as a fanatic. Yet the person who makes this claim, Katherine Albrecht, is quoted by the media and invited to testify at government hearings.

The Campaign Against IT

Not all the efforts to stifle new IT succeed. When advocacy groups decried Google’s Gmail system (through which consumers get free e-mail in exchange for viewing ads based on their message content) as a threat to privacy, Gmail users ignored the alarm because they recognized Gmail poses little risk.

But on other issues, the digital Luddites are having more success. In particular, a major reason the U.S. government does not require driver’s licenses to be secured against fraud using a smart chip (which could incorporate biometric data such as a fingerprint) is that privacy extremists have engaged in a campaign of deception to convince policy-makers, the press and the public that this would turn America into a "show us your papers" state.

Yet none of the bills proposing a smart driver’s license would have changed the laws governing when citizens must show identification to law enforcement officials. Last year, Congress passed the Real ID Act, which requires the federal government to promulgate technology standards for driver’s licenses. But political pressure exerted by privacy groups makes it unclear whether smart driver’s licenses will be required.

Now the privacy activists have set their sights on stopping RFID. A visible opponent is Albrecht, who heads Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering and is author of the anti-RFID book Spychips. Albrecht and other RFID opponents seem to have convinced legislators in at least five states that RFID should be curtailed. While none of the proposed bills has been enacted, some have come close.

One reason these bills get as far as they do is that the media has failed to present an objective view of privacy issues related to RFID. It’s not unusual for press coverage of RFID to focus almost exclusively on the purported privacy threats, without examining the validity of such claims. Because most reporters are not technical experts, it is easy for the digital Luddites to get them to fall for alarmist fairy tales.

To be sure, new technologies pose legitimate concerns (for example, the State Department’s initial proposal for an RFID-enabled passport failed to include encryption of the data on the chip). But by trying to stop new technology, rather than focusing on putting appropriate rules in place to govern its use, the opposition is hindering needed debate about how to get the benefits of new technology while protecting individuals.

Passionate activists are not the only digital Luddites. Businesses threatened by technology-based competition have sought to enlist government protection. As a result, the biggest challenge for many companies trying to introduce a new digital business model may be fighting efforts of threatened competitors to stifle online competition.

Because of the lobbying efforts of car dealers, it’s illegal in every state for a manufacturer to sell a car directly to the consumer. The National Association of Realtors has helped full-service real estate agents push for state laws prohibiting online discount brokers. The Texas Legal Review board, made up largely of attorneys, banned the sale of the software program Quicken Family Lawyer on the grounds that Quicken was engaged in unauthorized practice of law. (Luckily, the Texas legislature overturned the ruling.)

Take Control of the Debate

It’s too easy for CIOs, caught up in the business benefits of their IT systems, to fail to see the opposition before it’s too late. As a result, as CIOs plan their organization’s IT future, they would be well-advised to take into account potential objections from digital Luddites. CIOs need to recognize that some applications—even those that seem perfectly reasonable to an engineering and IT-centric culture—may spark spirited opposition from threatened interests or antitechnology ideologues.

What can CIOs do? Perhaps the most important thing is to preempt the neo-Luddites by defining the issue your way. RFIDs do not have to be "spychips," they can be "consumer value chips." Online automobile sales do not have to be a threat to car dealers but an opportunity to give consumers more choices and more power.

Meanwhile, on a broader level, technology executives should get involved in the public debate about IT by educating the media and elected officials about how IT works and about its broad societal and economic benefits. Perhaps, like the followers of Ned Ludd, today’s digital Luddites will be consigned to a similar fate of historical irrelevance. But let’s hope that happens before too many digital business models are wrecked.

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