A new report by IE University’s Center for the Governance of Change (CGC) highlights profound shifts in European sentiments to technological change, particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. To discuss the findings, a live webinar was held on June 1st which included a panel of experts and research contributors.
European Tech Insights 2020 is the second edition of a report by the CGC that focuses on European perceptions of technology and the future. The survey was conducted in January this year, and then again in April, involving 2,883 different respondents from 11 countries.
In his opening remarks for the online event, Diego del Alcázar, the co-chair for the CGC and executive vice-president of IE University, wanted people to know that this year the information had even greater relevance and resonance.
“Given the Covid-19 situation, we have been able to include data on the impact of this year’s disruption, making this survey of maximum interest,” he said.
The second round of questions was conducted in 4 countries, those considered the hardest hit by the pandemic at the time: Spain, Italy, and for comparison, China and the United States.
Questions related to topics such as the future of work and automation, the growth and regulation of technological companies, the gig economy, global supply chains, and climate change.
Some of the Key Findings
While the researchers compiled a list of the key findings, 3 areas in particular received focused attention during the discussions of the webinar.
Concern for data privacy has decreased
In Italy and Spain, 79% and 67% of people respectively support a Chinese-style restrictive tracking system, something that many people might find surprising. Additionally, after COVID-19 arrived in Europe, the number of citizens who agree to share their personal data for health reasons has grown by an additional 11% in Spain and 13% in Italy.
Support for laws limiting automation has increased
After the onset of the pandemic, support for limiting automation doubled in China, from 27% to 54%, and there was a 33% increase in Spain. The researchers suggested that anxiety over a weakening job market is a likely explanation.
Europeans favour regulation and higher taxes for Big Tech companies
Europeans are increasingly concerned about the big tech giants: 31 % of Europeans believe that governments should limit the size or even deescalate companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon because “they are bad for competitiveness and democracy.”
A further 45% of Europeans find it “ethically regrettable” to use services like Uber and Deliveroo due to the way these companies treat their workers. More than half of these respondents are in favour of forcing such companies to comply with the same work regulations as traditional companies.
Privacy and freedom of movement
“The first thing that we found is that Covid-19 is decreasing concerns about privacy. We saw clear support for a Chinese-style tracking system…[which] entails a significant degree of restriction of freedom of movement, but also surveillance of personal information,” one of the authors of the report, the webinar animator and academic director of the CGC, Dr Oscar Jonsson explained.
Another finding was that the pandemic has made people more willing to reduce their privacy for either growth or for public safety reasons: questions were framed around job creation or security concerns, such as combatting terrorism.
Data privacy seems to be something that is very easily conceded, explained another of the report’s authors, Dr Carlos Lastra-Anadón, who is assistant professor at the School of Global and Public Affairs, and research coordinator of the CGC.
Doctor Lastra believed that when you are talking about how more data might help to grow the economy or to enhance public safety, people seem to have become less concerned about privacy.
“Whether this is a permanent change or not, is hard to say. My take is that the concern about data privacy is something that is rather abstract. It’s like dessert: optional, particularly for young people,” he said.
“As soon as things get serious, it’s basically the first thing that goes away,” he said, adding that he would be surprised if the public continued to be concerned over the next few years about data privacy.
Certain disparities are present in the data regarding automation. While Europeans under 55 show a willingness to limit automation to safeguard jobs, those over 55 are less worried, and in fact the majority of them are against such legislation.
Most European countries are split with the exception of France, where a strong majority of citizens, some 59% of them, are “very willing” to limit automation.
These attitudes have notably shifted in some of the countries worse affected by the pandemic.
“What I found particularly interesting to see was the change in sentiment in China…on a backdrop of an economy that has expanded enormously, in large part, due to manufacturing and the adoption of robots,” Dr Carl B. Frey, an economist, economic historian, and contributor to the report, explained during discussion.
Creative destruction in employment can be an extremely painful process for society, especially if it coincides with other issues, Dr Frey explained, adding that naturally “during recessions and economic downturns, sentiments towards automation tend to become more sour.”
Regulation on Big Tech
On attitudes towards large technology companies, the researchers said that they had seen a very interesting difference between the US and China, where most of the big tech companies are located, as compared to Europe, which has an ongoing problem with the lack of big technology companies.
In Spain and Italy, the survey found that there was majority support for taxing big tech companies in order to finance the economic recovery after Covid-19. On the other hand, in the US and China, respondents believed that either all companies should share in the burden, or there should not be additional taxes imposed in order to manage the economic fallout.
“In general, Europeans were more willing to regulate, limit, deescalate tech than the Chinese and the US,” summarised Dr Oscar Jonsson.
Europeans not having any of the large tech companies means that they are more eager to tax and regulate them than the Chinese and the Americans are, Dr Frey observed.
“And I think that that’s only natural: the asymmetries when it comes to tech companies mean that different places have very different stances and attitudes on them,” he said.
When asked if he thought that regulation was something that might be preventing the development of large, successful technology companies in Europe, Dr Frey expressed scepticism.