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Former Google and Facebook employees team up to fight tech addiction

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A new group of tech industry insiders, the Center for Humane Technology, has been formed to fight technology addiction through information campaigns and lobbying efforts.

The organisation is intended to “[realign] technology with humanity’s best interests”. It counts high-profile Silicon Valley insiders among its members, including Tristan Harris (Google), Roger McNamee (Facebook), Sandy Parakilas (Facebook) , Dave Morin (Facebook), Lynn Fox (Apple and Google) and Justin Rosenstein, who created Facebook’s ‘Like’ button.

The Center’s first project will be a Ledger of Harms: a website to provide guidance to engineers on the health effects of technologies, and how to ensure that their products are healthier. “The most powerful tech companies in the world are making deliberate decisions that do great harm,” said Harris. “They’ve created the attention economy and are now engaged in a full-blown arms race to capture and retain human attention, including the attention of kids. Technologists, engineers and designers have the power and responsibility to hold themselves accountable and build products that create a better world.”

According to Common Sense, a non-profit group which campaigns for children’s well being in the digital world, alarms sounded by Silicon Valley insiders were influential in focusing scrutiny on tech companies and their “arms race for consumer attention”.

Common Sense will be joining forces with the new group to protect young people from manipulation by tech companies. According to Common Sense reports, teenagers consume media for an average of nine hours a day, and half of teens feel addicted to their phones.

“Tech companies are conducting a massive, real-time experiment on our kids, and, at present, no one is really holding them accountable,” said James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense. “Their business models often encourage them to do whatever they can to grab attention and data, and then to worry about the consequences later, even though those very same consequences may at times hurt the social, emotional and cognitive development of kids.”

“It’s time to hold tech companies accountable for their efforts designed to target and manipulate young people. When parents learn how these companies can take advantage of our kids, they will join us in demanding the industry change its ways and improve certain practices.”

The Center for Humane Technology and Common Sense will be launching ‘A Road Map for Kids’ Digital Wellbeing’ at a conference in Washington DC this week. This catalogues approaches used in the tech industry to hold children’s attention and explores the impacts of these approaches. These impacts could include lack of critical thinking, attention and cognition disorders and suicide ideation.

The groups are also planning a lobbying campaign to introduce measures to limit technological addiction and hold to account manipulative tech companies, and have funding for an ad campaign aimed at 55,000 US schools, The Truth About Tech. They will also work together to develop Standards of Ethical Design for the tech industry. Over the past year, internet companies – and particularly social media companies – have faced intense scrutiny over their passive role in spreading abuse, misinformation and radicalising content, as well as for their apparently addictive nature. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, George Soros gave a blazing speech condemning tech giants as a “menace to society”, following criticism from world leaders and former insiders.

Recently, Facebook has faced calls to take down its Messenger Kids app for children under the age of 13, while Apple investors have called on the company to invest in research and development for new approaches to prevent technology addiction.

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