Despite privacy controversies, IT industry’s reputation is on solid ground

At the end of last week, Twitter announced that 250,000 of its users had had their passwords stolen in a cyber attack on the company. Though just a fraction of the social media site’s 200 million users, the episode illustrates how the social media boom has increased the potential for personal details to fall into the wrong hands.
Such controversies may explain why respect for the IT industry is falling. Though still the most highly regarded industry among those GlobeScan tracks, respect for the high-tech sector has fallen over the past year. When GlobeScan asked people in 17 countries what issue the IT industry should most urgently address, “privacy” was the most frequently cited issue in Canada, Germany, the UK, and the US. Yet such concern over privacy seems to be primarily a Western preserve. With higher levels of disposable income, greater Internet penetration, and greater exposure to be to the risks of online commerce, Western consumers are at most risk, and have the most to lose, from Internet security breaches.
It is perhaps surprising that China, home to both the world’s largest online community and to a sophisticated government intrusion apparatus, is not more concerned about privacy. Just 10 percent of Chinese view privacy as the most pressing issue facing the IT sector, with product quality and pricing both seen to be more pressing issues. Indeed, throughout the developing world, issues of quality and price are seen much more pressing than in the West. The other major issue the global public wants to see the IT industry address is Internet content, with this being cited by large proportions in Panama, Peru, and the UK.
To some extent these issues may be irreconcilable. At December’s International Telecoms Union (ITU) meeting in Dubai, attempts to establish a treaty for web governance collapsed. A Russian and Chinese-led initiative to make governments the central actors in web governance was dismissed by Western states where individual web freedom is viewed as more important than content control—a clear conflict between content control and personal privacy. And is it possible to limit prices without impacting quality?
However, despite the IT industry’s falling reputation, these findings are generally positive. Notable in their absence from the list of pressing concerns are those relating to labour (notwithstanding the Foxconn episode) and the environment (despite worries over e-waste). Only the “digital divide”—limited access for poorer sections of society—is cited as a major social issue for the IT industry. If the industry can generate positive headlines this year, 2013 may well see their reputation back on the rise.
Finding from the GlobeScan Radar, Wave 2, 2012 
This post was written by former GlobeScan Research Director, Sam Mountford.