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Understanding the costs of “free” Internet services

Understanding the costs of “free” Internet services

Tech veteran discusses the ways mega-companies change things for better and worse

Technology companies wield incredible power to shape the world, and people need to understand the positives and negatives associated with that, a tech industry veteran says. For decades, technology firms were largely seen by society as a saviour of everything. But people now realize that “big tech is not always positive,” Jeremy Showalter said in a seminar at MEDA’s annual convention in Tucson, Arizona.

Showalter worked with Microsoft for more than 13 years in a variety of roles in several countries. Until the end of November, he was responsible for global non-profit engagement in Microsoft Philanthropies’ Tech for Social Impact group.

Techlash, a term coined by The Economist magazine, was the word of the year in 2018, he said. Techlash is a growing revolt against the power of technology giants by governments and individuals.

The business models used by Facebook, Google and others are now being questioned. Questions around personal privacy are front and center. “If you are not paying for a product, you are the product,” Showalter said. “Your data is the price.”

“People were so willing to take something for free, not understanding the long-term implications of that.” The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is the strictest privacy protection law

 Jeremy Showalter believes that success is about more than making money

in the world. It requires firms who operate in the EU to honor people’s request to be forgotten. Microsoft took the principled stance of applying that regulation to all of its customers worldwide, he said. “You own your data, full stop. Microsoft has been very clear on that.”

Microsoft supports regulation related to privacy rights. But Showalter predicts challenges to people’s privacy from other players is “going to get worse before it gets better.’’

“Until they (big tech firms) see that it’s existential to their business that they need to do that, they won’t do it (protect your data).” Tech firms have a responsibility to tell the truth, he said when asked about Facebook founder Marc Zuckerburg’s testimony to the US Congress.

Facebook, the social network created by Zuckerburg, has refused to ensure that ads posted by politicians and others are truthful.

“Ethically, yes, there is a responsibility (to tell the truth),” Showalter said. “If they don’t take that path, I think (the future of) their business is at stake. The path they are on right now is the path of being broken up by the government.”

“I’m surprised they took that approach. If anything, they could learn from Microsoft’s experience in the 90s or early 2000s. It took an anti-trust order to change behaviors at Microsoft.” Artificial intelligence (AI) is another area that people need to pay attention to. AI can be dangerous if teams creating the new technologies are not sufficiently diverse, he said. An individual programmer’s bias can get “baked into” the system.

One noteworthy artificial intelligence application is using technology to help doctors repair cleft palates and cleft lips, he said. They do this by using a facial modeling algorithm and peer reviews to improve how operations are done.

Microsoft Philanthropies programs include a focus on retaining and reskilling people to find new careers as artificial intelligence displaces work for millions of people. “There will be an incredible dislocation of labor over the next 20 years due to AI.” Microsoft thinks AI should be augmenting and helping humans, by automating things humans do not want to do, he said. “There will be many jobs though that will simply disappear because of this.”

“There are many things that AI will do better than humans, because humans are incredibly biased.”

Automation can remove human corruption, for instance.

“Any type of role where you are helping humans, or being with humans, (will remain). My Mom is a social worker, her job is not going to go away.”

Microsoft has a small team focused on artificial intelligence for humanitarian action, he said. The division also focuses on disaster response, refugees and displaced peoples, human rights and the needs of children. ◆

Integration of faith and career is an ongoing quest for Seattle executive

In Jeremy Showalter’s family, the concepts of career and Christian calling have always been closely aligned.

A tech industry veteran, Showalter grew up in Goshen Indiana, son of a Mennonite minister, and a social worker. His extended family includes ministers, missionaries, as well as people who led missions groups and Bible colleges.

Early trips to India and Taiwan with his parents were formative experiences.

That background gave him a strong sense that success is not just about money, that it is important to be part of the global community. Those convictions have led him to live and work internationally.

“If (success) looks exactly like the (definition used by the) person next to me in the world, then how am I any different?”

He met his Cambodian-born wife, Pa’lee, in Washington, DC after college. They have three children. Making important decisions together as a couple has been an important part of his journey. They

work to find a local church community before moving, so they can ensure they will develop roots where they settle.

Jeremy spent over 13 years at Microsoft, in a variety of roles that included sales, marketing, product management and corporate finance. He wanted to work in different functions and geographies with Microsoft. They moved to Ireland after four years in Seattle, then spent five years in Vietnam before returning to the US in 2017.

His most recent role as part of Microsoft’s Tech for Social Impact team included designing donations of Microsoft cloud services for non-profits around the world. (Cloud computing is the delivery of computing services — including servers, storage, databases, networking, software, analytics, and intelligence — over the Internet to offer faster innovation, flexible resources, and economies of scale.) The division also sells products to non-profit organizations. Sales proceeds from that work go back into Microsoft Philanthropies to help other non-profits.

He left Microsoft late last fall to lead a technology start up in Vietnam. He had been serving as an advisor to Hanoi-based Pique since early 2019, and the family is planning to move to Vietnam in the summer.

Pique is working to solve a specific e-commerce challenge. When a person anonymously visits an e-commerce site or a mobile app, it is difficult to provide a personalized customer service. “That’s what the team has been building over the past two years.”

Showalter, a member of MEDA’s board of directors, first discovered MEDA when he was in college.

Assuming the responsibility for stewarding well the gifts God has given us, finding ways to serve and remaining faithful are principles Showalter said drive him. He quoted scriptures from the books of Exodus, Luke, Mark and James in the Bible that he finds helpful in remaining committed to service.

“Everyone has been gifted in different ways,” he said. “Put that in context of the Kingdom. Where is that fit?” ◆