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The Week in Tech: Worried About Screen Time? A Dose of Big Tech Data May Help

Category: Science & Tech,Technology

Inspired by our panic, Google and Apple have introduced tools to help users manage their digital activity. But should we trust tech companies to help curb tech use?

My colleague Jack Nicas reported that, since launching such tools for iPhones, Apple had purged other smartphone addiction apps from its App Store. Apple said it was over privacy violations; app makers said it was because their software could hurt Apple’s business.

If the app makers are right, Apple is cornering the market on access to iPhone use data.

That would be troubling. If other companies and researchers had access to such data — along with Facebook’s likes, Netflix’s streaming figures, Google’s browsing histories and more — they could study it to more accurately understand what is genuinely problematic about relationships with our devices, and develop meaningful interventions to overcome problems.

There are problems with this idea. Getting tech companies to give up data is hard, probably requiring regulatory intervention. Use of the data would obviously need to be closely policed. And it’s slower than an intervene-first-think-later approach.

But if we’re going to stop using screens, let’s do it based on sound evidence.

“I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly,” Mark Zuckerberg told the crowd at Facebook’s annual developer conference on Tuesday, a smile on his face. He paused, perhaps expecting laughter.

There was virtual silence.

He pushed on, describing a new, more private Facebook — a bid to overcome the privacy and data scandals that have dogged his company. My colleague Mike Isaac explained what this would look like: more sharing in private groups, ephemeral content and encryption by default on messaging services.

Sounds promising! So why the silence? One reason, excepting Mr. Zuckerberg’s delivery, was panic.

Facebook is entering uncharted territory, and Mr. Zuckerberg isn’t sure what the future looks like, according to an interview he gave to The Washington Post. Here are some takeaways:

■ His business plan is hazy. “I don’t know how good of a business it will be, but I am confident it will be good,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.


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