Washington’s New Tone: Help us, Silicon Valley

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Policymakers have disparaged tech companies over issues like data privacy, market competition and online misinformation. Now, they need the industry’s help to combat coronavirus.

The Trump administration has directly engaged executives such as Google CEO Sundar Pichai in recent days, imploring tech companies to use their skill with artificial intelligence to analyze a trove of scholarly research on Covid-19. | Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Washington policymakers have disparaged the tech industry’s largest players in recent years amid bipartisan concern about online misinformation, antitrust abuses, privacy violations and a flood of unsavory digital content.

Now, with the country in the grips of a coronavirus pandemic, D.C. is looking to those same companies as saviors.

Just Monday, the White House implored tech companies to use their skill with artificial intelligence to analyze a trove of scholarly research on Covid-19 and related viruses to glean insights on how to fight the illness. That request comes on the same day Google parent company Alphabet unveiled websites to aid the government with coronavirus screening and information sharing.

The Trump administration has also directly engaged executives such as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Google CEO Sundar Pichai on the issue in recent days, despite President Donald Trump’s sharp and sustained criticism of their companies over issues like corporate taxes, Postal Service fees and business in China.

“It’s an interesting irony, isn’t it? And a bit of a realignment,” said Jamie Court, the president of Consumer Watchdog, a public interest group that regularly scrutinizes tech companies. “The government and politicians often turn to these companies when they need their help with votes or with crises.”

The U.S. now counts nearly 4,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus leading to 78 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University that most likely understates the real numbers. Many state and local governments have ordered schools, restaurants, gyms and other venues closed, sometimes for weeks, to mitigate the spread of the virus. Most dramatically, six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area are ordering their nearly seven million residents to “shelter in place” until April 7.

The tech industry has so far featured prominently in the White House’s response. Google in particular was thrust into the spotlight Friday when Trump declared from the Rose Garden that the search giant and 1,700 of its engineers would create a website to help screen people for coronavirus. (The reality turned out to be much more modest.) And Silicon Valley is likely to remain at the forefront as the White House plans to continue meeting with industry representatives as part of its “whole-of-America response.”

“The White House appreciates the spirit and enthusiasm from American technology companies who are eager to assist in the health and safety of every citizen during this time,” a spokesperson for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy told YAHOO NEWS.

OSTP joined industry and nonprofit partners in unveiling a competition Monday that calls on artificial-intelligence developers to create tools that help health officials parse through roughly 29,000 scholarly articles in order to answer questions about the coronavirus, including how best to prevent and treat the illness.

“I want to highlight that AI and high tech in general has gotten something of a bad rap recently, but this crisis shows how AI can potentially do a world of good,” Oren Etzioni, the chief executive officer of the Allen Institute for AI, told reporters on a White House call Monday. The institute was created by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Some companies have made other technologies like teleconferencing and workplace messaging software more broadly available, sometimes free of charge, so that schools and workplaces can continue to operate without convening in person.

Companies like Twitter, Amazon and Microsoft were among the first to pull out of large public gatherings and order employees to work from home, helping to usher in some of the so-called “social distancing” practices that other businesses and governments have implemented in recent days and weeks.

And the industry’s biggest names have also shoveled money toward the problem. Google and Facebook pledged $5 million and $20 million, respectively, toward foundations responding to the outbreak. Amazon, meanwhile, created a $5 million relief fund for small businesses in its native Seattle.

“We’re starting to see that when the chips are down, tech is riding toward the danger and helping us to address the problems that we’re facing,” said Carl Szabo, the vice president of NetChoice, a trade group that staunchly defends the industry. “It’s a little hard to argue the tech industry only does stuff for their own benefit when you look at what they’ve done over the last couple of days.”

The industry has largely cast its involvement as part of a broader duty to the public.

“It’s really all hands on deck on this,” Eric Horvitz, the chief scientific officer at Microsoft, said on the White House call. “People from company leadership on down to all of our folks deeply care about this issue. It’s an important issue for humankind worldwide.”

But the industry’s response has not been without criticism. The major internet companies have hustled to remove coronavirus-related misinformation from social media and fraudulent or overpriced products from online retailers, though people continue to find examples of both. The White House urged the companies to better coordinate the removal of misinformation on a call last week, and a collection of them announced Monday they would do just that.

Providing industry players with greater access to people’s data, particularly their health data, has also piqued critics who have argued companies should be held to stricter privacy standards.

“We hope U.S. tech firms will support efforts to limit the spread of the virus,” said Marc Rotenberg, the executive director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “But we also need to be sure that companies respect the privacy interests of Americans who are seeking information about the virus or receiving treatment. This is sensitive personal data that should be protected.”

Court at Consumer Watchdog added: “There is obviously an acknowledgment that these industries can solve big problems that government can’t. But there has to be care taken that the solution doesn’t involve a voiding of our civil liberties and privacy rights under the constitution.”

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