Is the COVID-19 pandemic Big Tech’s path to redemption - and yours?

Profile picture for user jbowles By Jerry Bowles March 30, 2020
The industry giants are rushing to the rescue. Will it be enough to get them back in the good graces of global regulators? And what about you and your actions?

Hands - hope
(Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay)

Like millions of other involuntary housebound citizens in developed countries, I now spend an inordinate amount of my life online. For the past three weeks, I have been testing all the grocery and shipping apps and learning which ones are best at reminding me about “essentials” that I have forgotten (Walmart) and which ones behave like they don’t know me that well (Amazon/Whole Foods). My diginomica colleague Den Howlett had a similar problem of recognition with Sainsbury. I’ve learned which ones have reliable delivery service (Walmart and Instacart) and which do not (Whole Foods and Schipt).

I've discovered that although most apps tell you that there are no reserved delivery times for the next two days, if you check in during your 3am old guy bathroom visit you might just find a slot has opened up over the next eight hours.I’ve learned which ones hold your order while you look for a new credit card that hasn’t expired and which ones make you start all over again from scratch.

As hordes of users stampede to the internet for their news, information, shopping, education, entertainment and remote working, we are testing the infrastructure and scalability of the internet and watching the fruits of the last decade of enterprise digital transformation playing out in real time under extreme conditions. Online CX irritations aside, my experience is that the system is working well. But then I live in an area with good connectivity. 

From Apple to Zoom, the industry is looking less the bad guys and more and more like the cavalry that rides to the rescue in those old Hollywood westerns. Two months ago—when tech companies were everybody’s favorite whipping boy--that thought would have been almost inconceivable.

Will it be enough to redeem Big Tech’s reputation which has been badly battered over the past few years by a series of privacy and data abuse scandals that have attracted intense global regulatory scrutiny including, in the U.S. by the Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission, state attorneys general and the House Judiciary Committee, who accuse the companies of engaging in anti-competitive behavior by using their clout to buy up challengers and stifle competition or expand into adjacent markets?

If it doesn’t it won’t be for lack of effort. Among the major Big Tech initiatives:

  • Google was among the first to volunteer, offering to build an Covid-19 website where people could get answers to common questions about the virus. Although it wasn’t quite as grand or quickly available as President Trump first promised, it has been a valuable source of coronavirus information.
  • Since then Google has promised $250 million in ad grants to help the World Health Organization (WHO) and more than 100 government agencies globally provide critical information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other measures to help local communities. Plus, $20 million in ad grants to community financial institutions and NGOs specifically to run public service announcements on relief funds and other resources for SMBs.

Another $200 million investment fund will support NGOs and financial institutions around the world to help provide small businesses with access to capital.

  • Apple on Friday released a website and an iOS app that allows users to screen themselves for coronavirus symptoms.The tools were developed in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the White House's Coronavirus Task Force and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Apple said in a statement to CNN Business. The app and website include a questionnaire and information about the novel coronavirus.
  • Facebook has said it would give $100 million in cash grants and ad credits to up to 30,000 small businesses in over 30 countries.
  • Amazon is looking to hire 100,000 new workers and has prioritized household staples, medical supplies, and other high-demand products coming into its fulfillment centers.

Will good deeds work? Bhaskar Chakravorti, Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, who has been tracking the effects of digital technology on issues such as global health and economic development, said the pandemic has shifted the conversation to how big technology companies are stepping up to fight misinformation and facilitating a “socially distant economy."

Washington lawmakers from both parties regularly attack the companies with a broad range of accusations, from doing too little to protect children to aiding hucksters who use the coronavirus outbreak to rip people off. But the coronavirus pandemic has offered the companies, all of whom hold sizable cash reserves and have an outsized capacity to influence American lives, a chance to play the role of savior while casting aside the image of profiteering data usurpers.

There is however a flipside to this. Dr. Thomas Otter, an HR analyst who specilaizes in GDPR advises that vendors should respond carefully. In regard to HR, he points out that:

If you are writing for a US audience, say so. The healthcare systems and employment laws differ by country, so don’t make broad global assumptions, or transpose US perceptions onto the rest of the world. Ditto elsewhere.

And in all the talk about how HR has changed forever, he cautions vendors to think first, act with precision:

Is your campaign adding to the signal or the noise? Do we really need another post about the pros and cons of remote working? Ask yourself if an HR leader would benefit from stopping what they are doing to read or watch your presentation, white paper or webinar. Just about every vendor will be jostling for attention. HR doesn’t need to be triaging vendor communications too.

You are a software company. Supporting remote working is something you should have been doing anyway, so announcing that you are doing remote work doesn’t interest anyone.

It is unlikely that you have a product that someone could buy today that would help them in the short-term. If customers have deployed your product, helping them use it better is goodness, so focus more closely on customers that have your software rather than simply marketing to new ones.

Otter's sentiments can be applied to many other areas of tech where a day doesn't go by without one vendor or another offering something they claim as 'useful' or 'helpful.' More broadly, Otter advises buying companies to beware falling into all sorts of traps:

I have noticed many enterprise tech vendors and consulting firms rapidly building out applications, screens, reports, bots, remote temperature trackers and mobile apps to track employees and workers with COVID-19, or symptoms (temperature and even diagnosis, etc). Tracking employees that are ill or could be falling ill in these times seems like a responsible thing to do. Modern applications enable you to easily add fields, or spin up a dashboard, so it would seem an ideal use case for an extension application, either for HR, employee engagement, analytics, or service centre products.

And HR is only one area where we may see issues arise. 

My take

There are lots of reasons to believe that the global movement to rein in the monopolistic impulses of Big Tech are about to be relaxed in a significant way once this crisis is over, not because the big guys are offering ways to help but because they are in the best position to survive and to speed the recovery when it comes. Here are some of them:

  • The shutdowns and forced quarantines and social distancing practices mandated by this pandemic have demonstrated clearly and definitively that the developed world is now so dependent on the internet and the goods and services it delivers that it can no longer exist without it. Politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels and Washington are going to think twice about crippling such important pillars of the global infrastructure.
  • Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and a few others are flush with cash and can survive the lean months ahead.Many startups will run out of money and fail or be acquired by the giants.This will be an outstanding opportunity for the big guys to further build their market dominance probably at bargain basement prices.
  • The inevitable collapse of less well-funded tech companies is going to create an immense pool of technology talent from which they will have their choice because they have the money to hire the best.

But then as Otter advises, we should proceed with caution. We may live in extraordinary times but that doesn't mean we relax on privacy or ethics because it is expedient to do so without considering the potential harm that can arise. We've already seen some backlash over Zoom's approach to privacy. 

Even so, it seems to me that the tech behemoths are going to emerge from this disaster bigger, stronger and less fettered by regulations than ever.That may sound unjust and Darwinian and it is.