05 May 2020
The Covid-19 measures confine hundreds of millions of people to living life online. Children connect with their teachers, patients with their doctors, businesses with their customers and artists generously share their performances online too. ‘Screenlife’ means more searches, social media posts and videocalls than ever before.
It leads to increased time spent online at a moment when hours lived digitally were already peaking. Politicians and internet users are grateful for the availability of all these connections and the vital role of the internet.
However, they may easily see connectivity as synonymous with technology giants like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Netflix and now Zoom. Companies that were powerful yesterday are acquiring more customers, data and insights about us today and will likely be even stronger tomorrow.
The question is how the Covid-19 crisis will impact policy proposals that are on the table in Europe and elsewhere. While some may be postponed, they should not be revoked. If technology giants are indeed considered of critical importance or ‘too big to fail’, more regulations and safeguards are needed to ensure they serve the public interest and that democratic principles are preserved.
Technology companies have realised that it is a historic moment too and are turning it into political momentum. Netflix and YouTube have agreed to streaming at lower quality to ensure internet traffic would not be congested in Europe even though no signs of that were eminent. Lawmakers presented this step as a victory over the companies, but reputation gains are more likely to be made by the other side. Companies that, until recently, were scheduled to be regulated now see an opportunity to brush up their reputations with constructive initiatives to mitigate the harms that Covid-19 brings.
The question is whether regulators will be convinced by these charm offensives. There is a looming risk of trade-offs between concerns about the dominance and power of technology giants in the online information ecosystem against a realisation of our collective dependence on them. Helpful and harmful can go hand in hand, but the one should not compensate for the other.
Cooperation between WhatsApp and the World Health Organization means they are joining forces to facilitate easily accessible information about the virus while in parallel there are unprecedented amounts of myths and lies about the pandemic going viral through encrypted messages shared by users. The Secretary-General of the WHO warned against an ‘infodemic’, with disinformation spreading faster than the virus itself, though both are equally dangerous.
The risks of misleading information reaching people in search of solutions and fraudulent products being offered as though they solve or protect have not escaped political leaders. Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Rutte and Commission President Von der Leyen all warned against rumours and disinformation and urged people to consult experts instead. These clear warnings, or their own view under the company hood, may explain why technology platforms are intervening and taking down content more than ever before.
Steps that have long been demanded by politicians, and resisted by corporate lobbyists, are rolled out as if companies never operated differently. It may be tempting for politicians to see these unprecedented steps as sufficient as, after all, companies have gone further than ever before. But for those concerned about privatised norm setting and a lack of independent oversight, great responsibilities should be clad in legal frameworks.
Diligence problems in the absence of clearly mandated standards become obvious when we look at the video platform Zoom. The company has experienced a true growth boom as Covid-19 measures forced people online. But increasingly, the lack of cybersecurity, privacy and democratic protection is making headlines.
Only after it was revealed that data had been stealthily shared with Facebook, information had been sent to Chinese servers, encryption was not end-to-end as the company had claimed and Zoom-bombing became a new phenomenon did the company try to correct its course. The New York State Attorney General and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are now investigating possible violations of the law, while both the German Foreign Ministry and Google have banned Zoom use out of concern about the lack of confidentiality and security. And Zoom is only the latest in a line of companies whose rapid growth has challenged lawmakers and law enforcers to keep up.
New tensions emerge when we look at proposals for a variety of new digital applications that promise to help curb the Covid-19 crisis. As governments are scrambling for ways to loosen strict physical distancing measures, companies are stepping forward with data application suggestions or proposals to build contact tracing apps. Such apps that have been used in a number of Asian countries have seen the sacrifice of privacy protections.
A coalition of European researchers is now developing conditions and solutions to make sure apps are designed and used in line with the General Data Protection Regulation. The GDPR is known as one of the most significant efforts to curb the limitless power of technology companies and to empower individual rights. It was a clear response to the excessive data gathering for commercial and intelligence goals that sprawled after 9/11. It is a strong reminder of how previous crises have often led to the erosion of fundamental rights.
While the Covid-19 crisis is far from over, it has revealed the backlog in ensuring that the most powerful technology companies in the world comply with the rule of law and are led by democratic principles. Yet the need for privacy, security and anti-trust protections is greater now that the technology giants are even more anchored in our lives, societies and economies.
When the crisis is behind us and we return to our lives without physical distancing, the excessive power of commercial technology platforms should not be forgotten. The Covid-19 crisis should instead be a reminder that the lack of anchors in the rule of law and the absence of rules and standards, checks and balances, does more harm than good.
This text is protected by copyright: © Marietje Schaake. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: © Engin Akyurt / Unsplash.com