We the Users: How to make technology better

We the users, in order to form a better Internet, establish our rights, ensure our safety, provide for equal access to information, promote choice, and secure the benefits of being connected, have a few demands.

With apologies to Constitution author James Madison, it’s time that we the users of technology find a voice of our own on how the future is shaping up. A lot of technology is no longer working for us — so I’m charting out what’s broken and how to fix it. I’m calling this effort “We the Users.”

When I started reporting on consumer technology two decades ago, we were mostly focused on what new possibilities it could open up — what cool new thing it might let us do. The worst thing you might say about a product was that it’s too hard to use. Or too expensive.

Today, many gadgets can be operated by a 2-year-old, and services are often free. Yet we have to keep our guard up constantly for products and companies abusing our trust by taking our data, exploiting our children, manipulating information or limiting our choices with monopolies. Sometimes government intervention doesn’t make things a whole lot better, either: You’ve got to click “agree” five times to use many websites, but your privacy isn’t much more protected.

My aha moment for how these products weren’t aligned with our interests came when, as an experiment, I hacked into my iPhone. I wanted to see what the phone was up to while I was sleeping. Lo and behold, all night it was sending my personal information out to dozens of companies I’d never heard of. Despite decades of politicians posturing about privacy, there were no laws to protect me. And despite its extensive advertising about privacy, Apple wasn’t stopping it, either.

Washington and Silicon Valley are each looking after their own interests, which is why many of our most important tech rules haven’t been updated since the advent of the VCR.

So I’m taking a step back, and talking with people who think deeply about how to protect our interests. It’s just a start, but the outlines of what we — we, the consumers, citizens, parents, workers, patients, friends, voters, creators and more — should demand are beginning to emerge. We the users want privacy, because it’s fundamental to being free. We the users want affordable Internet access, because participation in our digital society is a civil right. We the users want choice, so our future isn’t locked into a handful of mega-companies. We the users want transparency, so we can understand how technology is shaping our lives — and correct course when it goes off the rails.

The good news is that solutions are coming into focus. On this page, you’ll find a collection of columns, each of which explores a problem we the users face, and some of the best ideas for what to do about it. I want to hear from you about where technology isn’t working for us, and what you would do if you ran the future, too.

The future does belong to us, after all.