Hey, Fortune 500: Time To Get Involved


Why are you outsourcing the future of your business to the tech industry?

A large company doesn’t sue the Department of Justice without thinking long and hard about whether such a move ultimately helps its business. But perhaps taking Apple’s recent tussle as a cue, Microsoft has done just that. This is all the more remarkable given the company was permanently scarred when it lost a major antitrust suit to the DOJ in 2001. If you lose to the government in a high profile case, the results can be catastrophic: A Microsoft executive involved in that case recently told me “we lost more than ten years” of innovation and industry leadership as a result. During those years, Google, Apple, and Facebook all rose to power, and Microsoft’s stock –and its reputation –both languished.

But there’s much more at stake here than the future of Microsoft’s business –as Microsoft’s executives and lawyers are well aware. It’s a bold (and perhaps opportunistic) move: go on offense and sue the very agency that litigated the company into a 15-year defensive crouch. Microsoft’s newest case will likely find its way to the Supreme Court. To win, the company will need help from all quarters: the tech industry and consumer advocacy groups, to be sure, but more important, from the stalwarts of the Fortune 500.

Wait, what? Isn’t this a tech case? The heart of the dispute has to do with secret government requests for customers’ email. While it may seem counterintuitive, this lawsuit applies directly to giants like Unilever, Ford, and Nestlé. All BigCos would be well advised to tune up their amicus curiae skills. The smart ones will see an opportunity to get ahead of a defining narrative of our time.

In an age of information-first business, every company in the world is fueled by data. Marketing, that trillion-dollar lifeblood of commerce, is already driven by customer data, and all CEOs worth their pay are busy creating massive databases to help them divine not only how to market, but also how to converse with, react to, and develop products for (and with) their customers. In short, the future of business lies in intelligent use of data. And if that data is not secured by ironclad trust, your business is deeply vulnerable.

Sure, Microsoft, Apple, and their peers stand out: They process a huge amount of sensitive customer data–your emails, your location history, the keys to your entire online life. But every new car sold has the potential to know where you’ve been, where you’re going, and how fast you drove to get there. In a world where Ford declares itself a software-driven mobility company, it’s pretty clear that companies must also become trusted processors of sensitive customer data. And when they do, they’ll have as much to gain or lose as Microsoft does. The same could be said for Nestle and Unilever (who have the power to know what the world is consuming), and of course Citi and its kin, who know not only how much you’re in debt, but also everything you’ve purchased to put you there.

The fact is, the world and our interactions with it have already turned to data, and we’re just at the tipping point of that data being processed into actionable information. Such a world is rife with opportunity and positive benefits, but we have to get the regulatory framework right for such a future to flourish. I very much want to live in a world where Ford shares my mobility data with dozens, if not hundreds of other companies, so as to enable all manner of services and products as yet unimagined. But if that information is not protected by basic constitutional rights, such an ecosystem will be forever chilled.

Let’s be clear: at the core of Microsoft’s case lie basic constitutional rights (the complaint cites both the First and the Fourth Amendments). Do I as a citizen have a fundamental right to privacy in my effects, or do I not? If I store, process, and transmit information across corporate servers and cloud infrastructure, is that information protected by a bond of trust? If customers believe that the answer is no, they’ll be wary of logging onto Ford’s new mobility platform, or Nestle’s new nutrition app, or Citi’s personal finance site.

So listen up BigCos, those of you (and yes, it’s all of you) planning, building, or running massive databases of customer behaviors, customer preferences, and customer interactions. What Microsoft, Apple, and others are doing right now is determining the future state of your relationships with customers. This isn’t a tech issue. This is a future-of-your-business issue. And it’s time you got involved. After all, brands are a mark of trust between your company and your customer. You’d do well to get in front of this story, just as Apple and Microsoft have already done. They could use your help.


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