Tech

Silicon Valley is going all out to fight coronavirus. Thats a risky move.

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

The race to contain the coronavirus is turning the world on its head — even for Big Tech.

For years, Facebook, Google, Uber and other tech giants dismissed claims they needed to do more to police their global empires. Social networks said there were technical limits to how they could moderate online content. So-called gig-economy companies — those that rely on independent contractors, not direct employees — said they would not offer these workers wide-ranging employment benefits. Online advertisers said there was only so much they could do to stop tricksters from manipulating their digital platforms to make a profit.

Yet amid the coronavirus pandemic, those claims are falling like dominoes.

Since early March, Facebook has aggressively deleted reams of misinformation from its networks, mostly generated by normal users and not state-backed groups, while clamping down on people selling medical face masks and other products, often at hiked-up prices, on its platforms.

Google removed thousands of videos on YouTube, its video-streaming service, that spread false reports and remedies about the coronavirus.

The likes of Uber and Amazon, which rely heavily on contractors to deliver goods, announced plans to offer employees and independent workers alike paid sick leave — even as Uber challenges such rights in court.

Google removed thousands of videos on YouTube, its video-streaming service, that spread false reports and remedies about the coronavirus. Across the globe, videos about the coronavirus also carried a message underneath that encouraged viewers to seek advice from official government sources. Google also deleted apps from its online store that had tried to profit from the global crisis. And it prioritized official sources in peoples online search results — steps that showed how far — and how quickly — the search giant could go to police its digital offerings.

“The good thing about coronavirus is that weve seen more movement from online platforms than ever before,” said Claire Wardle, a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy Schools Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, who has tracked the spread of misinformation across elections from Brazil to India.

This push — in the name of combating COVID-19 — follows years of regulatory browbeating of these companies to do more to police their digital services. Only recently has Big Tech woken up to this fact (following decades of pushing against any forms of new legislation), leading to a mad dash to lobby policymakers worldwide over the types of rules needed to thwart the spread of misinformation and to give employment rights to gig-economy workers.

Uber has announced plans to offer paid sick leave to both employees and independent workers | Loan Silvestre/AFP via Getty Images

It also shows the willingness of the tech industry — just like other parts of the global economy — to do its part in combating a pandemic that, so far, has infected almost 175,000 people across every continent, excluding the Antarctic, leaving more than 6,500 dead.

But the sudden about-turn — often on hot-button issues that had been red lines for the industry only months ago — is startling. It shows that what had really been holding these companies back was not technical limits or a desire to give independent contractors more work flexibility.

It was, above all, a willingness to act. And thats something that firms like Facebook, Google and Amazon are going to find difficult to roll back on.

When the current global crisis calms down, regulators from Brussels, Washington and elsewhere will start asking tough questions about why tech giants cant take similar steps to police large amounts of online content or provide greater employment benefits for the grRead More – Source