Marta Tellado

Enforcing Big Tech Accountability

Air Date: January 19, 2021

Consumer Reports CEO Marta Tellado discusses how to make Big Tech more accountable, transparent, and protective of democracy.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome to our broadcast today Dr. Marta Tellado. She is president and CEO of Consumer Reports. Welcome Marta.


TELLADO: Great to be here with you, Alexander.


HEFFNER: Let me ask you, what is the most urgent concern in consumer privacy on your mind in this new year of 2021?


TELLADO: The most pressing concern, I think, is the lack of power that we as consumers have over our data. We have no control. We are not really sure who owns the data that is being collected by us. So, I would say just a total lack of agency right now.


HEFFNER: A lack of agency and a lack of transparency about what agency we may actually have. What do you hope to transpire in these next months in terms of federal legislation because we know that big tech has not imposed on it, as it promised the kind of self-regulatory framework to ensure that users and consumers have knowledge of their rights and access to their data.


TELLADO: Well let’s take a step back because I think we’re at an unprecedented moment. We have been seeing that big tech has not done an effective job of policing themselves. We have seen that consumers are more vulnerable, whether it is hacking into our personal private information, not being alerted in a timely fashion. And recognizing that while Consumer Reports, we’ve been around 85 years, we are very proud of the consumer protections and the rights that we’ve secured over that time period, but what I think is alarming about this particular moment is that many of those consumer rights and protections don’t apply to this new digital marketplace that we’re all in. And the other aspect that is totally unprecedented is that we are still struggling with a global pandemic. And so many of the activities, the marketplace activities that consumers take place in every day have shifted to this online world. And so that is where we are conducting our business, our transactions, students are learning, and yet we have very few rights and very little accountability of the big tech companies, and to make matters worse we are also at the frontier of these new monopolies, right, we have seen a lot of success in our ability to control monopolies. We’ve stood up agencies around anti-trust, but we are seeing a very new and different generation of monopolies now. And we don’t, we lack the agency capacity, capability and expertise to keep pace with the kind of change and innovation that we’re seeing that is undoubtedly providing consumers with convenience, but at what cost, what are we giving up? Is that transparent to consumers? I don’t think it is.


HEFFNER: So, the question is, where do we find the virtual governance to regulate in this arena successfully? You alluded to the fact that when it comes to modern communications, whether it’s Section 230 or FCC protocols, none of it was ever modernized for consumers or creators to live with the same kind of scrutiny, accountability, and privacy shield for consumers. So, what do you think would fast-track in these months ahead, the appropriate and sufficiently comprehensive, either legislation or public policy blueprint to move forward?


TELLADO: Well, I think one always has to start when, when your, I love your question on fast tracking, because I think one of the things we need in order to fast track is demand. Consumers need to demand. They need to recognize what is being denied them, in terms of their own power, their own control over their data and the safety of that data and how it’s being commercialized. So, I think we have a lot of work to do in continuing to educate consumers. But I also think that the big tech companies are doing themselves quite a bit of harm as well, because I think we’re seeing a shift in public opinion. When we did our most recent poll, we saw that 82 percent of consumers are very concerned about their privacy online. So, I think, I think there’s a shift. I think there is an appetite to also confront big tech in a way that we have not seen before. And so, we’re seeing some experiments. We saw some experiments in California with the California Privacy Bill that we were very much a part of. I like what they’re trying to do by giving consumers opportunities to opt out and to claim their data and their privacy. But like anything, you know, we put legislation through the test just as we do products and services. And when we contacted and ran an experiment in California, to find it well, just how easy is it to do that? What practically speaking, how does it work? And it doesn’t work so well. And so there’s some experiments there’s more to do and we’re seeing also some legal battles with Facebook. I think that’s going to be interesting. We’re also, one of the things that I’m particularly proud of is we’re known for a lot of our labs where we’re testing hardware and products, but one of the things that I felt really needed to stand up in this digital world is a digital lab. And what I mean by that is there are no standards for privacy in the connected, a connected world of products. And so, by creating and forcing standards, we want to create a race to the top. So, I think, yes, we have, we see signs that there is an environment for legislation and an appetite to go after big tech. But I think we also have to keep the pressure on corporate actors and so it’s, it’s really a two-pronged approach. The standards that we’re the open-source standards and our digital lab is really about doing just that is creating standards so consumers, when they’re out buying a television, you have some sense of awareness of which of these television brands are scooping up your data, which of these television brands when you turn on the television is already set to be a little bit more hackable than the other. When the consumers have that information, then they can make their purchases and bend the marketplace. So, I think creating standards as well as legislation so that consumers can really demand the kinds of standards that we’ve seen in the marketplace of yesteryear, that I think right now, we’re in, it’s the wild west.


HEFFNER: Right? And it’s been the wild West and we’ve observed that on our broadcast for several years. And I don’t recall a moment when there was a watershed and there was a force that was going to mobilize and change the wild west as the status quo. Now, as we enter a new Congress and a new presidency, there is potentially that activity, that momentum when you say a two-pronged approach, I also wonder, are you thinking that it is more top down or bottom up with respect to the way in which effective virtual governance is going to be executed and implemented? Is it communities demanding this by IP address, by zip code, by state and building the legal infrastructure in California, in Indiana, in New York? Or, or is it really holistic because in order to tackle the problem of monopolized platforms that have legal immunity right now for so much, we absolutely need a federal approach.


TELLADO: I think it’s absolutely both it’s top down and bottom up. I think when, you know, when I remember when my introduction to the consumer movement, the consumer movement and the mentors, incredible mentors that I had, none of them came from my community, you know, as a Latino woman and many of the members, the former members of Consumer Reports also didn’t look like some of the communities that I spent most of my childhood in. And so, I think what I’ve tried to do at CR in the last five years is really understand that the consumer of today is very different, and we have to, we have to be where they are. We have to outstretch and not wait for consumers to come to us. In the past, right, we, we thought, well, well, information is power. And we did a very good job of providing information to consumers, but think about the explosion of misinformation right now and what it means to be a savvy consumer today. And so, there’s, there’s a lot of work to do. And for us, that being where consumers are and partnering and making sure that the information is not just at CR, but it’s also on other platforms, like The Root that is a place where African Americans go for information or partnering using our investigative reporting skills to partner with The Guardian and investigate what’s happening in our water supply and how safe it is. So, I think it’s recognizing that we have to outstretch our efforts to a much broader community so that we can get the attention and we can demand the fairness that we need to see in the marketplace, I think on the federal level, I think it’s imperative. It’s imperative that we start to see elected officials recognize that, you know, given the pace of innovation and change and the marketplace that we are all on in the digital space now, is we need to see agent, we need a generation of public servants that are just as savvy about this technology and this innovation for the public interest. We have to run at pace with innovation and change. It is bringing remarkable things to our economy and to our consumer marketplace, but we know that we also need a watchdog. It’s these three legs of the stool, right? It’s the public and civil society, it’s government, and it’s also the corporate sector. Right now they’re out of balance. And we’re at a moment, I think, where we have to recognize how are we going to rebalance the marketplace and take advantage of all the things that technology can do for us.


HEFFNER: That is the reality. It is out of balance. We have legislators who are industry oriented rather than consumer oriented, frankly, to be honest, how much of that is related to the vast lobbying complex that supports candidates every two years on the midterm cycle, every four years on the presidential cycle. We know that companies like Facebook, Alphabet, you name the major players, they are doling out cash left and right to support candidates of both parties to keep the wild west the status quo.


TELLADO: That that’s not a new headline, Alexander.


HEFFNER: Right, but.


TOLLADO: And, but I will tell you this, I will say the thing we live in a democracy, we have to hold people accountable and they come up for elections and we hold them accountable. And that is the beauty of our system, that there is that tension there. In a democracy there is no sitting by the sidelines. And if we’ve learned anything over the last year, it’s that when you do not sit on the sidelines and you engage and you participate, change happens. It may not happen immediately, but it does happen in the arc of justice is one we have to continue and continue to fight for. So, what, what I have learned over the course of the year is that we are on the right track in engaging consumers and providing the tools, but also recognizing that change does take time. We, we don’t have to sit on our hands and expect that government alone is going to fix things. I think what we have seen think about it, we have 6 million members in Consumer Reports and, and the beauty of it is that just as many of them are blue as red, right? And they come to us and they’re part of this community because they believe in independence, they believe in the rigor and the science and the facts, that we have a common set of facts to evaluate and hold companies accountable and to hold those watchdogs, government watchdogs accountable. So, I think there’s great promise. I see a resurgence in the need for trusted advice and partners, and just a circling back to science, and to recognizing that, to solve these immense societal problems, we have, we need a common set of facts, that it is, it is absolutely one of the bedrock touchstones of CR that our founders were such intelligent and informed skeptics and healthy skepticism is good, but we need a share a common share of facts.


So, I see great promise in the activation and leaning in and I’ll give you a good example of not having to wait on change. Legislation, we know gridlock, we, we expect we don’t gridlock is not going to evaporate tomorrow. We know that, but here’s here, there, there are different levers that one can pull and incentivizing change, the bottom up can also happen because think about it. We may go to our election booth one, two, three times a year. We’re in the marketplace every single day, making changes and making transactions and trying to fulfill the aspirations we have for our families, whether it’s finding a loan for a house, whether it’s paying for higher education and finding insurance for your car. You name it. We’re in the marketplace every day. That’s incredible untapped power that consumers have every day. When, think about it, we have been heralded for being the organization that forced seatbelts to be mandatory in every car. You know, now we just think they, they they’re automatically there because they were not. And now the seatbelts of today are technology. And when we think about the life-saving technology in cars today, we discovered that they’re ad-ons, they’re luxury items in the automobiles today, and that’s just not sustainable. Safety, lifesaving technologies should not be. And so, what we did was we announced, if you want to be in the top 10 picks at Consumer Reports, you need to include lifesaving technologies standard. Now, what was interesting was the first year we saw it move from maybe 23 percent to 61 percent this year, it’s now 72 percent. So, we, these are different levers that we can pull as consumers to move the market to fairness and justice. So, I think, I think there are many things, but, but all of it works together. I don’t think any one of them solves the problem for us. In a democracy. You need government, you need the corporate sector, you need a healthy, competitive market, and you need engaged consumers.


HEFFNER: Marta, is there something analogous in the digital sphere? It resonated with me when you use the safety allusion, because there’s also the safety net and foundation of broadband access, which I know you at CR are pushing for. What about ensuring that technology companies are doing their part when we know in this pandemic, it hasn’t just been inequitable in terms of health outcomes, but in terms of education outcomes, who has access, who has to drive to a McDonald’s, you know, miles away, who has to you know, share a very slow speed of internet, or who has no internet access at all to do business, commerce, to be educated during the pandemic. So, what kind of standards or safety net, if you will, are you hoping companies can rally around in, in ensuring that, that they are doing their part with securing broadband for every American?


TELLADO: I’m so glad you raised that because that’s something else that we have been pushing and fighting for, access to broadband, because here we are now, all of us online and the students that are most vulnerable are those that do not have access to broadband and to learn remotely. And who are those students? The most vulnerable communities, whether they be Latino, African American. And so, I was encouraged when I saw in the stimulus package $10 billion dollars. And I think, I think that’s great. And that’s a start and there’s so much more to do because we know that 42 million Americans are not able to access. And when they do access, it’s a monopoly and they don’t have a choice. And so, the price is controlled by that one company. And that is the case in rural America. It is the case in way too many communities. And so, yes, I see that the tide is turning there now. And that is another way in which this moment has really raised that alarm bell for us. But I see it in other ways too. And this point of who is being impacted, where are the disparate impacts. And I think I do see more of that in vulnerable communities. And so, let’s take health care, for example, one of the things we in our investigation uncovered, and I know that you’ve talked a lot about algorithmic bias on The Open Mind, and, and that is a, another way that we are seeing inequities in our online world. One of the investigations we had recently was to look at some of the questions that patients, kidney patients were being asked on their condition. And what we learned was that those questions were creating an algorithmic bias for African Americans and they were being directed potentially away from life-saving treatment. So, you have to be able to do that investigation and get access and have transparency into those algorithms to really start to change and create change because the bias in those algorithms is really reflecting the age-old biases that we had in the marketplace, prior to our digital marketplace. So, there’s a lot more investigation. I think it really hinges on trust, transparency, and just recognizing that we are at a point right now much like we were, you know, we’ve been around 85 years. We were stood up around the great depression, another time in our history where we confronted some really deep divides and an economy that was failing ordinary families, I think we’re there again. And I think we will not solve those issues unless we really, really look hard at the ways in which we can bring equity, trust and transparency to the digital marketplace.


HEFFNER: And that’s really about AI ethics when it, to the question of systemic, formulaic, algorithmic potions that, that are digitally thrust upon us without our consent. How much of that is subjective or objective, I mean we, we think that every company should have an ethicist. But how clear cut is it when it comes to these questions?


TELLADO: Well, algorithms, aren’t, aren’t objective, they’re subjective, right? It’s, and there’s a lot of mystery about them, but we, you know, one of the other stories we, we, we uncovered was car insurance, everybody needs car insurance, and you think that the price of your car insurance is based on your driving record, but it’s not, it’s based on an algorithm that takes a variety of composite things about you, that it learns about you, and it decides the pricing. And the thing we uncovered was that one of the most pivotal data points about you is where you live and whether you’re Hispanic, black and your, has nothing to do with your driving record. So, every touch point in our lives is being filtered through these, you know, quote unquote invisible algorithms that are really being constructed by people that don’t look like many of the vulnerable communities that are falling prey to them. And so you have a whole generation of red lining that is part of our digital marketplace.


HEFFNER: The reason I asked you about objective versus subjective is because we know that the technologists behind some of these algorithms would argue that the criteria they’re choosing are fair, right, and you’re, and you’re saying that’s often not the case. It’s, it’s of course, a cliche in journalism that what is objective is always subjective. So, I just, I think that we don’t have the infrastructure in place that, to really account for this, like you said, in virtual marketplace. As a final thought, just for both the consumers and the, and the executives, listening to our conversation, what is the most effective way that you can engage in the modification or the correction of these algorithms, especially when those proprietary interests are often not disclosed and are often very sanctimonious and defensive about what they’re doing?


TELLADO: Transparency, transparency, transparency. We need the capability on the watchdog side, the government side. It’s great that we can investigate algorithmic bias in medical care and in insurance. But this problem is much larger than any single investigation. And you’re absolutely right Alexander, we do not have the infrastructure to hold these companies accountable. And we also don’t have the transparency about how this marketplace is, how pricing and competition in this marketplace is being sorted out by the very few. And so, we’ve got a lot more to do. And I think we have to, again, the promise is also, we need to engage consumers. They are a sleeping giant. They have to demand. We are always very focused on the supply side, but we have a consumer driven economy. That’s a sleeping giant of power to demand and really hold companies accountable.


HEFFNER: Right. As we, as we said, from the outset the invisibility of the platforms can’t go unheeded anymore, and consumers have to know whether it’s your online platform, Mozilla, Chrome, or whether it’s the device you’re using. You are responsible for that question, assessing whether you’re being protected and demanding that protection, Marta Tellado, CEO and president of Consumer Reports. Thank you so much for your insight today.


TELLADO: Thank you, Alexander, it’s a pleasure.


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