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Big Tech’s Response to Coronavirus: Face Masks, Hiring Binges, Free Web Sites and Cash Donations

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Photo collage of Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai

April 2, 2020 – Big technology companies have been closely scrutinized by legislators and the executive branch in Washington for at least two years now. But this “techlash” is largely forgotten in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Whether the future looks back on big tech as a savior or a vulture depends much on how these companies – particularly Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google –act and react in the coming weeks and months.

To see how they have been acting since the pandemic emerged, Broadband Breakfast has assembled this inventory of their actions since the import of the new coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease has come to light.

A timeline of how the big four of big tech have responded to coronavirus

Amazon has made its software largely available to governments, schools, and health workers and has also donated several millions of dollars to fighting the epidemic. The company has seemed to have pounced on a suddenly vulnerable economy, announcing that it will hire 100,000 new warehouse workers while other companies began mass layoffs. And it has not escaped criticism regarding its handling of those workers’ health and safety.

In general, Apple seems to have had a single-minded obsession with donating as many masks as possible.

Facebook has donated several hundred million dollars to aspects of the coronavirus response, ranging from combatting misinformation to donating ad space to health authorities. Its newly unveiled Community Help feature, which connects Facebook users offering help with those requesting it, is untested but widely-anticipated.

Of the big four, Google has donated the most to address the coronavirus, with a contribution of $800 million for small businesses, governments, and health workers. It has also suffered in the press when it got caught in the crossfire between the Trump administration and the press over the coronavirus website affair.

Amazon

March 16th: Amazon announces it will hire 100,000 employees amid pandemic, according to the New York Times.

March 18th: The Atlantic reports that Amazon confirmed the first case of coronavirus in an American warehouse, in Queens, New York.

March 20th: Amazon announces it will reduce the quality of its streaming service Amazon Prime Video in Europe, following YouTube’s footsteps, according to The Verge.

March 20th: Amazon donates $20 million to research and development of coronavirus testing, announced by Amazon blog post.

March 22nd: Trump announces during daily coronavirus task force conference that Amazon, as part of a consortium comprising Google, Microsoft, and IBM, will be offering hundreds of petaflops worth of computational power in analyzing projects in epidemiology, bioinformatics and molecular modeling according to TechCrunch.

March 25th: Amazon provides its Amazon Web Services “cloud technologies and technical expertise” to help the World Health Organization aggregate epidemiological data.

March 25th: Amazon offers its Future Engineer collection of computer science literacy courses to schools.

March 27th: Amazon donates $4 million to British Red Cross and several British government institutions.

March 28th: Amazon donates its AWS infrastructure technology to help Boston Children’s Hospital track the spread of coronavirus through the use of crowdsourcing maps.

March 30th: Amazon grants $5 million to 400 Seattle small businesses.

March 30th: Amazon provides 73,000 meals to medically vulnerable residents in Seattle in conjunction with local catering business Gourmondo.

March 30th: Amazon remotely upgrades Alexa to answer the question “Alexa, what do I do if I think I have coronavirus?”

March 31st: Amazon fires warehouse worker who staged a walkout at a Staten Island warehouse. New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is already leading an investigation of Facebook with eight other state attorneys general, calls for an investigation.

April 1st: Amazon formally recommends “All corporate office employees who work in a capacity that can be done from home are recommended to do so through April 24.”

April 2nd: Amazon announces it will release a bevy of webinars “on a variety of remote learning topics” for free available on April 6th.

April 2nd: Amazon donates infrastructure technology that will allow the aggregation of information across formerly siloed British National Health Service departments. They will share data such as occupancy levels and wait times at specific hospitals.

Apple

Sometime in early March: Apple issues a work-at-home order to its employees, loosening its notorious policy of secrecy surrounding unreleased products, such as having designers work in rooms with blacked out windows, according to a report by Bloomberg.

March 13th: Apple closes all retail stores outside of China in Tim Cook’s statement to the public. In the same letter, Apple announces its donations have reached $15 million for coronavirus-related efforts.

March 19th: Tim Cook announces via Twitter that Apple will be donating an undisclosed amount of money to Protezione Civile, Italy’s official emergency response task force for the coronavirus.

March 20th: 9to5Mac is the first to notice Apple’s unannounced decision to downgrade streaming resolution on its European customers’ Apple TV+s.

March 25th: Tim Cook announces via Twitter that Apple has sourced 10 million masks for the U.S. and millions more for Europe.

March 27th: Apple releases COVID-19 Screening website in conjunction with the CDC and the White House that tells users about the disease, testing, and what steps they can take.

April 1st: Apple donates $20 million to China’s coronavirus efforts, Tim Cook announced through China’s equivalent of Twitter, Weibo.

April 1st: Apple donates 2 million masks to the State of New York according to a tweet by Governor Andrew Cuomo .

April 2nd: Apple teams up with actor Leonardo DiCaprio to raise $15 million for food charity according to Business Insider. As of this writing, they have already raised $12 million.

Facebook

January 30th: Facebook announces a more aggressive stance on removing misinformation regarding coronavirus following its declaration by the World Health Organization as a public health emergency of international concern. Facebook also begins offering free ad credits for organizations that advertise responsibly on the coronavirus.

February 26th: Facebook begins promoting links to WHO at the top of search results on coronavirus.

March 13th: CEO Mark Zuckerberg matches $20 million worth of donations to WHO and the Center for Disease Control through a Facebook post.

March 16th: Facebook, along with Google, Microsoft, and other tech companies, releases a vague statement promising to help “people stay connected,” “[elevate] authoritative content,” and “[share] critical updates,” according to The Verge.

March 17th: Facebook donates $1 million to the International Fact-Checking Network and $1 million in grant money to local news organizations across the U.S. and Canada to support their coverage of coronavirus.

March 17th: Facebook restores all posts that were incorrectly flagged for spam following a report by The Verge, announced through a Twitter post by Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity.

March 18th: Facebook doubles server capacity for WhatsApp.

March 18th: Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg announces through a Facebook post that the company will offer $100 million in cash grants and ad credits for “up to 30,000 eligible small businesses in over 30 countries where we operate.”

March 18th: Zuckerberg hosts press call where he announces Coronavirus Information Center feature in the Facebook News Feed. He also announces that Facebook will give governments and emergency services free access to work collaboration tool Facebook Workplace for 12 months.

Sometime between March 19th and March 23rd : Facebook data scientist Ranjan Subramanian releases internal report acquired by The New York Times showing a huge uptick in news clicks through Facebook Newsfeed, which had been declining for years. The uptick in new clicks was specifically for “high-quality” and local news.

March 19thFacebook sends its content reviewers packing. Facebook shifts content review work from contractors to full time employees.

March 22nd:  Zuckerberg announces through a Facebook post donation of 720,000 masks reserved for their employees in case of forest fires. Although Facebook has only 45,000 employees, a Facebook spokesman said that “the masks were from our emergency disaster reserve and many had been acquired due to the recent dangerous California wildfires. As recommended, Facebook has emergency supplies like food, water, masks and other supplies on hand like many other companies.”

March 23rd: Facebook announces it will temporarily downgrade video streaming quality on Facebook and Instagram in Europe and Latin America, according to Reuters.

March 23rd– March 26th: Facebook co-hosts a COVID-19 Global Hackathon with the aim to foster the development of software that addresses “some of the challenges related to the current coronavirus pandemic.” Winners will be announced on April 10.

March 26th: Facebook launches Get Digital, an online resource that helps teach kids how to responsibly use the internet.

March 26th: Facebook launches its “Messenger Coronavirus Community Hub,” a webpage that explains how to get the most out of Facebook Messenger.

March 29th: Facebook invests $100 million in news industry to support publishers “at a time when advertising revenue is declining.”

March 30th: Facebook donates $25 million to support healthcare workers.

March 31st: Facebook launches its Community Help feature, making it easier for users to both request and offer services such as delivering groceries or providing transportation.

Google

March 3rd: Google makes its video-conferencing tool Hangouts Meet available for free for G Suite Users and schools and expands its hosting maximum to 250 participants.

March 13th: Trump blindsides Google by announcing a thorough coronavirus screening website. As of March 13th, Google has developed no such thing.

March 15th: CEO of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, Sundar Pichai clarifies the situation through a blog post, insisting that Google is creating a very straightforward database of resources.

March 20th: Google subsidiary YouTube announces it will downgrade it its video streaming resolution in Europe following a Twitter plea from European Commissioner Thierry Breton.

March 21st: Google rolls out the coronavirus information website made notorious by Trump’s surprise and confusing announcement at the White House Rose Garden. The website hardly resembles the website Trump and Federal coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx described using a big, fictional chart.

March 21st: Google redesigns it search page to highlight content from health authorities like CDC and WHO.

March 22nd: Trump announces during his daily Coronavirus Task Force press conference that Google, as part of a consortium comprising Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM, will offer hundreds of petaflops worth of computational power for the analysis projects in epidemiology, bioinformatics and molecular modeling according to TechCrunch.

March 24th: YouTube announces it will be lowering streaming quality around the world according to a report from Bloomberg.

March 27th: Pichai announces $800 million donation to small businesses, governments, and health workers via blog post.

April 2nd: Google donates $6.5 million to fund fact-checking organizations in an effort to combat misinformation

April 2nd: Google creates a public health dataset built on the back of its BigQuery data warehouse and opens the dataset to researchers.

Antitrust

Former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Says Biden is Inappropriately Exhorting the Agency

Former Chairman William Kovacic said that Biden’s direction of the FTC raises expectations for the agency.

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Photo of George Washington University professor William Kovacic giving a lecture in 2017 from the university

WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – A former Federal Trade Commission chairman criticized the Biden administration’s direction of the FTC to accomplish the president’s antitrust goals.

At a Wednesday forum of the Mercatus Institute, former FTC Chairman William Kovacic criticized Joe Biden’s “instruction, direction, and exhortation” to the FTC, which is an independent agency and not part of the executive branch.

In July, President Biden directed regulators to craft rules preventing manufacturers like Microsoft and Apple from restrict consumers’ ability to fix their own devices. After the FTC voted unanimously to increase its enforcement against “right to repair” restrictions, both Microsoft and Apple announced plans for consumers to repair their own products.

Kovacic said that Biden almost appears to have the attitude that he “gave [the FTC and DOJ] an assignment” to advance the Biden administration’s consumer protection goals.

Then imagining that he was arguing from the perspective of the Biden administration, Kovacic said Biden could argue that he gave the FTC “an assignment to work on those guidelines and an exhortation to the FTC to get the work done,” as opposed to specific marching orders on the topics.

Mismatched capabilities at the FTC

Kovacic, who served as a commissioner at the FTC beginning in 2006, and who chaired the agency from 2008 to 2009, said the FTC has a history of mismatching its commitments with its capabilities.

In developing consumer protection programs, currently a professor of law at George Washington University, said the FTC often fails to ask “basic questions about who would do it, how long it would take, how much it would cost, and whether or not the institution has the credibility or capacity” to administer successful programs.

Kovacic said that in order to achieve a successful regulatory agenda, there must be a “stability of perspectives” that will endure across administrations.

Policymakers should be mindful not to abandon the resistance from total regulatory overhaul that he said “afflicted” his predecessors as chairs of the agency.

“Everybody will step forward and say, ‘I have my list.’ I suspect the Commission already is getting a letter each day from members of Congress saying, ‘here’s another one.’”

Recalling the many prior presidents’ push for regulators to control petroleum prices – including by President Biden in November – Kovacic said the FTC can’t always deliver.

“Whenever there’s going to be a problem the new leadership, seen as competition policy superheroes, will be exhorted to do something, and it will not be an adequate response to say, ‘we’ve already got a lot on the agenda, we’ll get to it when we can.'”

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International

Facebook is Failing Iranians, and Iran’s Leaders Are About to Launch a Censored Internet

Social media platforms are harming Iran due to their ignorance of Iranian culture and the nation’s primary dialects.

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Photo of Mahsa Alimardani, Iran program officer for Article19, from March 2018 by ITU Pictures

WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – A lack of cultural understanding by Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms is a prevailing reason for inaccurate content moderation in Iran, Middle East experts said.

Moreover, and they said, Iran’s proposed international internet replacement, the National Information Network, is dangerously close to coming into effect.

Speaking at a Thursday event of the Atlantic Council designed to draw attention to the current status of social media in Iran, a human rights expert said that Big Tech’s chronic misunderstanding of the Persian language leads to censorship of content that is either entertainment-based or posted by Iranian activists.

Panelists at the event also highlighted a new report “Iranians on #SocialMedia,” as the inspiration for the discussion.

Facebook “needs someone who actually understands what is going on on the ground,” claimed Simin Kargar, a human rights and technology research fellow at Digital Forensic Research Lab. Because the company don’t employ or contract with such people, said Kargar, the platform and its sister Instagram are inappropriately censoring posts in the country.

Because of the platforms’ negligence in understanding and adapting to local concerns, the Iranian people are not benefiting from the internet.

And – because Iran also heavily monitoring and censoring the internet within its borders, the Iranian people end up being hindered by the double-whammy of Iranian and Facebook censorship, Kargar said.

Iranian censorship and Facebook censorship

Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher with the human rights organization Article19, agreed that misconceptions due to language are a dangerous foe. She made this comment when asked what America can do to help and whether American sanctions have played play a part in the rise in content moderation.

All panelists at the event said that while American sanctions against Iran impact the internet in the country, they are not responsible for what is currently happening in Iran.

However, Alimardani also blamed Meta, the new corporate name for the company that runs Facebook and Instagram, for improper and excessive content moderation.

She said Facebook currently flag anything related to the Iranian guard after the Trump Administration created a list of dangerous people that should be restricted on social media. She disagreed that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps should be listed as a foreign terrorist organization.

Is the National Information Network a new model for authoritarian regimes?

The National Information Network, the new censored internet that Iran is currently working to implement, had been planned to launch in March. Alimardani said she believes that the release will be postponed because of disagreements about who within the government will control content moderation, and the impact the firewall could have on Iranian tech companies.

Alimardani highlighted the unique nature of the Iranian law that created the national internet. Instead of being voted on by the Iranian Parliament, the legislative body deferred action on the creation of a permanent national internet only until after an experimental period with the firewall, she said.

Yet the government has been pushing its own online streaming and video platforms. These platforms are part of the government’s attempt to incentivize an Iranian national “internet.”

Throwing cheap broadband into a censored internet to sweeten the pot?

Essentially, said Kargar, the government is promising more bandwidth at a lower cost through the National Information Network. The new network is also appealing to Iranian consumers because the NIN will primarily be in the country’s major dialect.

Holly Dagres, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and the author of the “Iranians on #SocialMedia”, also spoke on the NIN. She said it would take Iran back to the Middle Ages, and also limit communication with other Iranians and with the outside world.

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Antitrust

Consolidation, Bloat, and a Waning American ‘Brand’ Hurt the Economy, Says Tim Wu

He argued that fundamental changes must be made to restore peoples’ faith in an American system that works for everyone.

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Photo of Tim Wu from January 2017 on Wikipedia Day used with permission

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2022 –White House Special Assistant Tim Wu said Wednesday that the U.S. economy is over-consolidated and bloated in the middle.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Wu, a member of the National Economic Council with a portfolio over Technology and Competition Policy, argued that that the “American dream” has suffered major setbacks in recent decades.

Wu, who is credited with coining the term “net neutrality” and a longstanding critic of telecom monopolies, has more recently become an outspoken critic of big technology companies.

See also:

“We can see very vividly how fragile this concentrated economic system we built has been and how poorly it is working for the whole country,” Wu said.

“Our country has become too centralized. It is too national in its character – in terms of where businesses are location – too centered on consumption, as opposed to production.

“Too many of the [economic] returns go to too few people who often live very far away from the communities they serve.”

Hearkening to the post-World War II decades in which Western nations endorsed significant government intervention in the economy as part of social democracy, Wu said that America is “relearning the virtues and merits of a mixed economy – that is the truer American tradition of small and medium business – market structures where [people] can all survive and prosper; what [President Joe Biden] calls ‘an economy that works for everyone.’”

Can elements of a new form of social democracy be revived in a technology-drenched age?

Wu distilled his criticisms to three primary points: Too many industries have become too consolidated, a bloated “middleman” economy has emerged, and the “American brand” has diminished.

“We have all seen so many industries consolidate into just the ‘big three’ or ‘big four,’” Wu said. “That is a traditional problem that I think extracts a lot from the economy.”

Wu went on to explain the “middleman” economy – a rise of a “highly concentrated middle layer” across many industries. This bloat on the processing end takes place somewhere between the inception of a product or service and the consumer is extracting too much revenue, Wu said.

“When you think about monopoly – which is just high prices – it leads to this problem where the middlemen have power over their suppliers and are able to squeeze their suppliers and also often able to squeeze their employees,” Wu said. This is “a new kind of problem for the economy, and one that we need to face.”

ILSR’s Stacey Mitchell and Tim Wu.

What is the ‘American brand’?

Wu’s final point related to what he referred to as the “American brand.”

“There has been a real sense that the sense of opportunity that has been the ‘American brand’ has diminished,” he said. “The statistics are a little depressing that confirm this.”

75 percent of U.S. industries are controlled by fewer companies than they were 20 years ago, Wu said. He pointed to mergers that skyrocketed in the 1980s and predicted that 2022 will feature a record number of mergers.

“These are real challenges and I just want to assure you that the administration of the White House is very focused on [them] and we see it not just in terms of the economy, but in terms of the Democratic soul of this nation,” Wu said. “Freedom and opportunity are not trivial things when it comes to describing what democracy is all about.

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