Digital Politics is a column about the global intersection of technology and the world of politics.
When Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, wanted to address the nation about the latest measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, he didn’t turn to the country’s national broadcaster. He streamed it live on Facebook.
The World Health Organization created a dedicated information hotline on WhatsApp, the encrypted messenger. Google filled people’s search results with government advice for the coronavirus as if it were a public service announcement. The British government reportedly asked Amazon to help deliver emergency medical supplies through its nationwide logistics network.
In the age of coronavirus, tech companies are now a vital part of how governments worldwide are responding to the crisis. But their role is even more far-reaching: Big Tech has become a public utility, the de facto highway of 21st century life.
Just like we rely on quasi-monopolies to deliver water, electricity and other basic staples, so too do we lean on Google, Facebook and Amazon for everyday digital goods and services that are crucial when governments are ordering countrywide lockdowns and most contact with the outside world is now either streamed through a videoconference or done via internet messenger.
That fact will change how tech giants are seen in today’s society, and may force them to accept a greater regulatory burden.
What could such oversight look like?
Consider the level of scrutiny that electricity providers and water companies are under when providing everyday basics — but for the online world.
Google will face renewed calls to open up its digital empire to rivals — or, if the search giant wants to keep it to itself, allow regulators to scrutinize the company’s activities in ways as yet unseen.
If Facebook truly has become an international broadcaster (and with 2.2 billion users worldwide, it’s hard not to see it that way), then the social networking giant will have to comply with the same rules that apply to traditional outlets, including strict limits on political advertising in some countries.
The same goes for Amazon and its global delivery network; Apple and its burgeoning music streaming and other services that complement the iPhone maker’s existing hardware business; and any other company — particularly those that hold buckets of people’s data, the lifeblood of the digital economy — now providing life-saving support to governments and citizens in the ongoing crisis.
Call it the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.
Until now, companies have urged restraint when officials in Europe, the United States and elsewhere questioned whether these firms held too much power.
But in this time of crisis, with almost 400,000 people infected and 17,000 dead, these companies’ role in society has been laid bare. And no level of industry lobbying or calls for calm will change that when governments have no choice but to rely on these tech giants to provide basic services as public authorities struggle to cope.
The digital paradox
There’s deep irony in Big Tech’s new role as a utility.
First in Europe, and then in the U.S., some lawmakers called for these digital behemoths to be broken up, urging the need for greater competition in a world that has come to be dominated by a select few Silicon Valley brands.
But it’s this exact dominance — Google in search results, Facebook in social media, Amazon in online deliveries — that has made their collective response to COVID-19 so essential.
By becoming monopolies in each of their digital arenas, these firms have done things that, say, a litany of mini-Googles could not have done: provide a one-stop-shop for people in dire need of information, communication and other basic online services. In a crisis, it turns out that such network effects — everyone congregating in one place online — can actually save lives.
Calls to dismantle the tech giants will inevitably resurface after the global pandemic is finally under control. Smaller rivals will no doubt cry foul when regulators again turn their attention to legitimate concerns that the digital big boys have become overly dominant and are crowding out competitors.
But instead of breaking up tech, policymakers should label them for what they are: public utilities that should be treated as such.
That would entail rethinking the types of profits Big Tech can make from digital advertising (now dominated by Google, Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Amazon); reassessing the role some of these firms play in public discourse, particularly around elections; and retooling regulators’ thinking to see these digital beasts less as black boxes of technology and more as staid utilities providing the plumbing for the online economy.
The past weeks have shown how much we all have come to rely on these firms. It’s time we started to treat them for what they are.
Mark Scott is chief technology correspondent at POLITICO.