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Will Facebook and Amazon need quarantining after Covid-19?

During an epidemic data privacy falls lower down on our hierarchy of needs.
Image: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

There are no atheists in foxholes, and no tech regulators in a coronavirus lockdown.

What was once thunderously described as “surveillance capitalism” is now a pandemic necessity. Twitch is where our children go to school; Twitter where epidemiological models are debated; and WhatsApp where we have drinks with friends. Some 40% of the world’s population is living under lockdown, according to AFP, creating exactly the kind of bored and isolated citizens whose fingers linger over their Facebook app button, as my colleague Alex Webb notes. Our personal information is hoovered up as before, but data privacy is now gone from our hierarchy of needs.

Likewise, the market power that made Big Tech look so dangerous makes it look vital and dependable now. Amazon.com, which has always wanted to be the Everything Store, is now the Only Store in cities like Paris or San Francisco, where it’s an essential lifeline for a myriad of household goods (with some restrictions) that can’t always be found in the grocery stores or drugstores that are still operating. The iniquities of the gig economy are still as outrageous as ever — as complaints by Amazon’s workers show — but there’s no mistaking the message sent by the company’s pledge to hire 100 000 more people: A firm once under fire for killing the economy now is the economy.

Where does that leave the “techlash,” the drumbeat of outrage against data-extracting, competition-killing platforms banged on by consumers, small firms and government regulators? At first glance, as Wired magazine recently surmised, it’s dead — or at least in hibernation — as the focus shifts from constraining Big Tech to supporting it to ensure it can reach all of us in this time of need.

In fact, we may already be seeing the contours of a new, post-virus grand bargain between Big Tech and Big State.

It says something that the most high-profile move from the European Union in recent weeks has been to ask the bosses of Netflix, and Alphabet’s Google and YouTube to throttle streaming quality to reduce Internet congestion. The EU’s technocrats in Brussels, the land of sweeping data-privacy laws, are now eying the use of smartphone geolocation metadata — anonymised, of course — to monitor the outbreak. Digital rules designed to boost the EU’s technological sovereignty are being re-thought, the FT reports.

What the current crisis has emphasised is how much of what the tech industry’s billionaire-run corporations provide resemble essential public, or quasi-public, goods and services. As the virus has shut schools, libraries and public parks in some cities, those spaces have moved online. Information, education, and health care in these times are overwhelmingly reliant on the Internet — and by extension dependent on the FAANG firms (and Microsoft), which as of last year accounted for more than 40% of all traffic. It’s hard to imagine the genie will be put back in the bottle. Even once countries lift lockdowns, Big Tech will retain its power.

Which is why, when we emerge from self-isolation to rebuild the post-Covid-19 society, we can’t just return to the earlier status quo. The virus has already prompted governments across the world to re-think where the fire hose of financial stimulus should be aimed in an emergency, with trillions in aid going to support workers, hospitals and the unemployed, not just big business. A similar re-think is due for tech platforms. If they’re going to provide essential public goods, they need to be held to a higher standard.

If social media firms are our sidewalks and parks, they should be kept clean — virtually speaking — of misinformation and bad actors. If e-commerce platforms are delivering vital medical equipment for the authorities, they shouldn’t traffic in fakes or quack cures. If online marketplaces are infrastructure for small firms and gig workers, they must be run fairly. And if collecting and processing our personal data helps the greater good of healthcare, more benefits should accrue to the public by ensuring that what’s being collected, and how it’s handled, isn’t harmful. Oceans of data generated by what Stephen Roberts of the London School of Economics calls the “digital turn” of health surveillance will require new rules and explicit terms of engagement to limit abuse.

The message is starting to get through to the companies themselves, which have tended to drag their feet in the past. Facebook is taking down harmful misinformation related to the new coronavirus and redirecting users to public health authorities. Amazon has banned more than one million products that falsely promised to cure the coronavirus. Google is banning promotional ads for medical masks so they aren’t hoarded by panic-buyers. A new Covid-19 data partnership between Britain’s National Health Service and tech firms, including Google and Palantir Technologies, has explicitly promised to abide by EU data-privacy principles and destroy its data store after the pandemic. It will take regulatory pressure to make sure this isn’t all just for show.

In return for responding more proactively to the prodding of watchdogs, Big Tech will probably find itself in less political hot water in the future, and justifiably so. The current pandemic has focused our minds on the common good and decreased polarisation in several countries — in the US, for example, Republicans’ and Democrats’ views toward coronavirus concerns  are gradually converging. If online platforms that have historically tended toward some toxic behaviours can themselves undergo a similar refresh, it will be one step in the right direction.

If there is the risk of another techlash appearing on the horizon, however, it’s that we don’t know what the long-term effects will be of Big Tech making peace with Big Brother — namely, a state that has also expanded its emergency powers, surveillance capabilities and size during the crisis. The mix could prove toxic in the long run, even if for now, it’s helping the common good. We’ll have to keep our eyes open.

© 2020 Bloomberg

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