Consumer Reports, Inc.

Creating a Digital Watchdog in an Age of Corporate Concentration

Lead Organization

Consumer Reports, Inc.

Yonkers, New York, United States

http://www.consumerreports.org

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To learn more about – or provide significant funding to – this project, please contact Lever for Change.

Project Summary

The transformative power of technology is present in every aspect of our lives. But in an era of mass data collection and consolidated corporate power, we see growing threats to our individual autonomy and security, and increasing discrimination and inequity.CR has always confronted disparities in market power, consumer choice, and individual control from the same crucial position: before you can fix something, you need to understand it. Today, that means building a watchdog with the tools and expertise to peer into companies’ operations, complicated algorithms, and intricate data sharing, all at a scale that keeps pace with Big Tech.From making seat belts standard to passing the Safe Drinking Water Act to challenging redlining in insurance markets, we’ve seen the transformative power of leading from evidence. With the resources of 100&Change, we can restore trust in technology, choice in markets, and our shared voice in the public sphere.

Problem Statement

The top seven technology companies generate over $100M every hour. These giants have successfully vanquished old models of delivering news, buying products, and more. But consumers increasingly lack meaningful choices in the digital marketplace. And because these companies don’t resemble the industries we’ve spent the last century developing rules and norms to rein in, they haven’t been required to take on the public responsibilities and legal obligations of the institutions they’ve replaced.The threat to consumers is not the functionality of these services, which have made our lives easier in many ways. Instead, it’s our complete lack of insight into how decisions are made on our behalf, the subtle ways we can be manipulated, and a lack of robust public institutions that can keep up with the most fast-changing sector in the economy.Since 1936, CR and other standard-bearers of the consumer movement have generated the hard evidence needed for individuals to make better purchasing decisions, companies to make better products, and policymakers to advance consumers’ interests.Today, this task is exponentially more difficult. Questions about price, safety, and performance have been joined by issues of transparency, biased access, and control. The answers are hidden beneath technical complexity, legal and copyright restrictions, encrypted data streams, a web of business relationships and product ecosystems. And the consequences are disproportionately felt by economically-disadvantaged families and communities of color.Companies have unprecedented access to details of our lives. We have next to none into theirs. We need to restore power to the public.

Solution Overview

With support from Lever for Change, Consumer Reports will build a digital watchdog armed with the tools, systems, and partnerships needed to test and monitor the digital marketplace—so that consumers can flex their market power, companies raise their standards, and rulemakers can do their job.We will lay a 30-year foundation for consumer digital testing capacity—starting with three domains where the concentration of corporate power threaten choice and agency:Data brokers (inclusive of large advertising platforms and the activities of third parties in the ecosystem); Internet of Things (inclusive of “smart” appliances and AI personal assistants); andAutomotive (which, in the advent of smart mobility and autonomous vehicles, is emerging as a new nexus of data collection and commerce). Using this evidence, we will rally consumers, manufacturers, and policymakers to hold the tech industry to higher standards—better products, more competition, and tougher laws.This investment will fortify a broad and representative public interest research community with tools, resources, and structural independence. It will give us the ability to understand, evaluate, and challenge the decisions made by some of the largest and most complex corporations of all time. It will inform consumer behavior, as well as legislative and regulatory actions on privacy, security, and antitrust.With a critical mass of philanthropic support, we can strengthen an important and underappreciated field of research, create a meaningful watchdog function for the digital marketplace, and shape the future to the public’s interests.

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Project Funders

  • Craig Newmark Philanthropies
  • Ford Foundation
  • Alfred P. Sloan Foundation