Yesterday, after a huge struggle, Samaritans finally decided to suspend its new app, Samaritans Radar. It took them a long time to do it, and there was a lot of pain on the way. The Samaritans have lost trust, and a fair number of people respect them less than they did before the saga began – not least because, even now, the Samaritans don’t seem to have grasped what has gone on. They still seem to think the app has had to be pulled because of the way that privacy concerns were raised – the implication being that a bunch of activists on the internet derailed a valid and important project. Very much the opposite is the case: Samaritans Radar had to be pulled because the app, and those behind it, misunderstood the nature of the very people they should have been helping.
In a wide range of ways they underestimated those people. They underestimated how much people care about their autonomy (and related to that, their privacy). They underestimated people’s ability to work out what was going on, to analyse and understand not just how the app worked but what the impact of the app might be. They underestimated people’s ability to organise, to bring in experts to support them, to work with the media – and to support each other. They underestimated people’s ability to achieve something.
The campaign that eventually led to the suspension of Samaritans Radar was led by what is an active and very positive ‘mental health community’ on Twitter. This isn’t a bunch of out-of-touch ‘keyboard warriors’ as some people seem to have suggested. It’s remarkably varied: people who have or have had mental health issues, people working in the field of mental health, privacy advocates, social media professionals, academics, media people – and many people who have a complex mixture of all of these. Many of those now working as mental health professionals have also had mental health issues themselves. It’s not an ‘official’ campaign of any kind – it’s a bunch of people who connect with each other on an ad hoc basis (one of the best things about Twitter) and who coalesced around this issue. I was brought into it by someone I know only through Twitter – but someone who I respect very much for his views, his perspective and his understanding. That’s the thing – respect. And that’s where Samaritans let themselves down so badly. It looked as though they didn’t respect exactly the people they should have respected.
People who have suicidal thoughts, people with mental health issues and so forth don’t have any less desire for autonomy than other people. They don’t have any less need for autonomy than other people. They don’t have any less ability than other people – because they’re people! They come from every walk of life, and have every range of skills. Of course there are people here who care about this kind of thing who also have huge amounts of ability to express themselves, to campaign, to investigate and respond – and Samaritans as much as anyone should know that. They should have understood that before they developed the app – and should have been able to anticipate the issues, and avoid them.
“Privacy, particularly in its aspect as a protector of autonomy, is something that people want and expect. When it is invaded, when people’s autonomy is overly restricted, people react and dislike it. One common thread of the case studies throughout this book is that it appears that the more people know about how, when and where their privacy has been invaded, the more they want to protect that privacy. In the end, businesses need to understand this if they are to meet consumer desires.”
That’s a quote from my book, Internet Privacy Rights: Rights to Protect Autonomy – from the first chapter (p21). It’s referring to businesses – the case studies in the book are mostly business-related – but it applies equally directly to charities like the Samaritans. The issue of autonomy is the key – people want autonomy, they think they have a right to autonomy, and they will fight to protect that autonomy. In the case of Samaritans Radar, they did fight to protect that autonomy.
So what can Samaritans do now? They’ve taken the first step by suspending the app. Next, they need to think a bit harder about why that had to happen – and not try to pretend it was a fine app brought down by unnecessary complaints. Then, most importantly, they need to consult much more widely – and in particular, they need to talk to the very people who brought down the app: the campaigners, the Twitter activists and so on. They need to face up to the concerns that people have – and understand why people care about their autonomy and their privacy. It’s hard to see a future for the app – but if they are going to try to resurrect it, they need to understand why the people on Twitter fought so hard against it. They didn’t do it out of perversity, out of some theoretical and misplaced belief in privacy: they did it because it threatened their autonomy, their agency, something that everyone holds very dear.
If the Samaritans don’t understand this, and try another relaunch along the same lines as before, it will be fought again. And it will lose.