Coronavirus crisis shows Big Tech for what it is — a 21st century public utility

Digital Politics is a column about the global intersection of technology and the world of politics.

When Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, wanted to address the nation about the latest measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, he didnt turn to the countrys national broadcaster. He streamed it live on Facebook.

The World Health Organization created a dedicated information hotline on WhatsApp, the encrypted messenger. Google filled peoples search results with government advice for the coronavirus as if it were a public service announcement. The British government reportedly asked Amazon to help deliver emergency medical supplies through its nationwide logistics network.

In the age of coronavirus, tech companies are now a vital part of how governments worldwide are responding to the crisis. But their role is even more far-reaching: Big Tech has become a public utility, the de facto highway of 21st century life.

Just like we rely on quasi-monopolies to deliver water, electricity and other basic staples, so too do we lean on Google, Facebook and Amazon for everyday digital goods and services that are crucial when governments are ordering countrywide lockdowns and most contact with the outside world is now either streamed through a videoconference or done via internet messenger.

Consider the level of scrutiny that electricity providers and water companies are under when providing everyday basics.

That fact will change how tech giants are seen in todays society, and may force them to accept a greater regulatory burden.

What could such oversight look like?

Consider the level of scrutiny that electricity providers and water companies are under when providing everyday basics — but for the online world.

Google will face renewed calls to open up its digital empire to rivals — or, if the search giant wants to keep it to itself, allow regulators to scrutinize the companys activities in ways as yet unseen.

If Facebook truly has become an international broadcaster (and with 2.2 billion users worldwide, its hard not to see it that way), then the social networking giant will have to comply with the same rules that apply to traditional outlets, including strict limits on political advertising in some countries.

But instead of breaking up tech, policymakers should label them for what they are: public utilities that should be treated as such.

The same goes for Amazon and its global delivery network; Apple and its burgeoning music streaming and other services that complement the iPhone makers existing hardware business; and any other company — particularly those that hold buckets of peoples data, the lifeblood of the digital economy — now providing life-saving support to governments and citizens in the ongoing crisis.

Call it the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.

Until now, companies have urged restraint when officials in Europe, the United States and elsewhere questioned whether these firms held too much power.

But in this time of crisis, with almost 400,000 people infected and 17,000 dead, these companies role in society has been laid bare. And no level of industry lobbying or calls for calm will change that when governments have no choice but to rely on these tech giants to provide basic services as public authorities struggle to cope.

The digital paradox

Theres deep irony in Big Techs new role as a utility.

First in Europe, and then in the U.S., some lawmakers