Innovation must put people ahead of profits

Innovation must put people ahead of profits
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President John F. Kennedy, on March 15, 1962, sent a special message to Congress on the urgent need to establish a new set of rights, laws and standards to protect and empower consumers — so, all of us — in a changing world. 

“The march of technology — affecting, for example, the foods we eat, the medicines we take, and the many appliances we use in our homes — has increased the difficulties of the consumer along with his opportunities; and it has outmoded many of the old laws and regulations and made new legislation necessary,” he said. 

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For better or worse, those words have proven to be timeless. They are as accurate, as relevant, and as pressing today as they were in Kennedy’s age. While a family in 1962 could never have imagined life with “smart” appliances, quantum leaps in modern medicine, or the vast universe of services and apps that now populate our day-to-day existence, they would certainly recognize the feeling of being confused by the complexity of the consumer marketplace — a feeling that most of us know all too well in 2019.

Every year, the consumer movement marks World Consumer Rights Day on March 15th, the day that Kennedy brought this vital message into the national conversation. It’s a reminder of how far we still have to go to ensure that all of us can trust the things we buy in the grocery store, the app store, the pharmacy, the showroom, and everywhere else our safety, money, health or privacy is at stake.

The last year has driven home just how critically important that work really is. Wave after wave of revelations about data privacy abuses by Facebook and other companies, outbreaks and recalls that have called the integrity of our food system into question, the continuous rise of companies like Amazon and Google that hold unprecedented sway over what information we do and don’t see when we go to make choices — the need for consumers to have a say in the rules of the marketplace has never been clearer.

A new breed of products, platforms and services have rewritten the old playbook for protecting and advancing the interests of consumers. They’ve delivered us incredible convenience, connection, and enjoyment, but they have also left the door open to new threats to our wellbeing.

Kennedy warned us 57 years ago that when innovation outpaced old laws and regulations, it was time to insist on new ones. That time has come again. 

We need to establish rules and standards that ensure that the remarkable technological progress our society makes does what it’s supposed to do: Make life better for people.  The voices of consumers coming together to insist on their rights helped loosen the grip of oil and steel giants a century ago. They helped set powerful automakers on a course toward greater safety in Kennedy’s day. Now, they must be harnessed to create new guardrails for today’s digital giants and connected products, so that innovation always puts people — not profits — first.

That power — the power to bend the marketplace — may not seem obvious to you and me as we go to make our day-to-day choices. But consumers have proven time and again throughout history that we do have the power to influence even the largest corporations in the world, and to hold them accountable.

We do that by making informed choices and seeking out trustworthy information. We do that by raising our voices to decisionmakers in Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. We do that by fighting for rules that serve our interests, and by calling out actions that don’t.  That power isn’t always in the hands of one person, but in the hands of all people, it is the most successful force of change we’ve ever known. 

It’s up to us to exercise that power, to heed the words of President Kennedy. It’s up to us to make ourselves heard by companies, lawmakers and each other before this new era of extraordinary threats and opportunities advances into the future without us and leaves our rights and interests in the dust.

Marta L. Tellado is president and CEO of Consumer Reports.