Special Briefing: The New Red Crosses: From Apple to Alibaba
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because they have the resources — but do they have the will?
By Dan Peleschuk
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? Late last week, Apple and Google announced they’re teaming up to develop contact-tracing software to help fight the coronavirus. Days earlier, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey pledged $1 billion of his personal cash to do the same. Facebook, for its part, has been tackling misinformation faster than ever. And Chinese giants Alibaba and Huawei are pitching in with charity efforts. Tech giants — typically targets of widespread criticism, and even government probes — are stepping in to help those same governments as they struggle amid the deadly pandemic.
Why does it matter? Once dominating global headlines about anticompetitive practices and privacy abuses, these major players wield enough financial and logistical man power to strike a serious blow against COVID-19. But, as society gradually returns to normal, a key question will arise: Will it help them win back public opinion?
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Perfect timing. The pandemic struck just as U.S. antitrust investigations against Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google were gathering steam. Sure, crushing competitors and forging a system of “surveillance capitalism” is frowned upon in developed democracies. But it turns out those skill sets are useful in fighting a worldwide viral outbreak. Take user data, for instance: Typically collected to target ads, it’s now guiding efforts by Facebook and Google to map out the disease’s movement patterns. Meanwhile, billion-dollar donations like Dorsey’s — or the delivery of hundreds of thousands of test kits and masks around the world by Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese e-commerce behemoth Alibaba — require the kind of cash found in few other industries. Huawei has also donated millions of masks, though some recipient countries have denied that’ll sway their opinion of the telecom giant accused of corporate espionage.
Now hiring. Innovation and charity aside, Big Tech has also embarked on a hiring frenzy at a time the rest of the economy is shedding jobs by the millions. Amazon has recruited 100,000 new workers since last month, while another 75,000 new jobs are opening up soon, as demand for online commerce surges because of the pandemic. Hunkering down in its fight against misinformation, Facebook is grabbing highly skilled professionals — and sources inside Apple suggest it’ll soon do the same. Taken together, recruiters say it’s “a great time” for tech giants, and potentially for anyone who’s dreamed of landing a job there. But that’s much less the case for smaller startups without deep pockets, which are now struggling to stay afloat as their competitors grow even more powerful.
Forgive, not forget. Others are wary about giving tech giants too much leeway. When the pandemic passes, they say, the same issues — personal privacy and corporate culture, to name just two — will remain as relevant as ever. “It doesn’t abrogate the problems they had before,” veteran tech journalist Kara Swisher told the New York Times. In fact, some believe governments might face even more pressure to regulate these massive firms as strictly as they do other utilities like electricity and water, since that’s how crucial they’ve become during this crisis. Just a few months ago, 7 in 10 people wanted governments to regulate Big Tech, according to a global Amnesty International poll. Depending on how much that’s changed in recent weeks, U.S. Attorney General William Barr may have good news for them: Last month, he said he hopes his agency’s antitrust probes will bear fruit by “early summer.”
WHAT TO READ
Big Tech’s COVID-19 Opportunity, by The Economist
“Their best defence is to propose a new deal to the citizens of the world.”
South Korea Isn’t the Model We Need Against the Virus, by Charu Sudan Kasturi on OZY
“A war against an unseen enemy … offers legitimacy to intrusive surveillance that in other times might spark widespread criticism.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo on Tech’s Coronavirus Response
“I’ve just been struck by both the magnitude and the scope of the way tech leadership is digging in.”
Watch on CNBC on YouTube:
How Is Coronavirus Benefitting Technology Companies?
“This is bad news right now for small competitors who wanted to try to be different.”
Watch on Al Jazeera English on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
In the ether. Despite efforts by Twitter to fight coronavirus-related misinformation, a report released by Oxford University researchers last week found that more than half of the content that’s been debunked by fact-checkers remains posted online without being specified as false.
- Dan Peleschuk