How Big Tech is exploiting the coronavirus crisis to expand its power
Small businesses and tech startups are closing in droves. Yet by most accounts, Big Tech is sitting pretty. It’s another glaring inequity of the coronavirus fallout. Indeed, the dominant players will attempt to turn COVID-related surges in traffic and demand into long-term gains or simply scoop up bruised smaller competitors on the cheap.
Such opportunism should have antitrust authorities and lawmakers in Washington expediting the multiple ongoing inquiries and reviews into Big Tech. But Americans at large should be concerned on a much deeper level — since many of the giants have taken the opportunity of a crisis to double down on harmful practices and their cavalier attitude toward accountability and privacy.
Take Facebook’s content-review process, at once heavy-handed and inept. Despite a vow to crack down on truly dangerous anti-vaccination crankery, such content continues to blight the company’s social-media platforms, which include Instagram. Meanwhile, Facebook has been caught censoring perfectly legitimate content, such as a Post column by Steven Mosher raising questions about a Chinese virology lab’s potential role in the outbreak.
Meanwhile, Google has come under fire for running ads for essential products related to COVID-19. Like Facebook, Google had pledged not to cash in on the crisis and announced a ban on ads that capitalized on the virus. But Google’s policy also turned out to be woefully inadequate.
Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission slamming Google’s failure to prevent the misuse of its advertising platform. “Google has made repeated representations to consumers that its policies prohibit ads for products such as protective masks,” they wrote. “Yet the company appears not to be taking even rudimentary steps to enforce that policy.”
Taking a much different approach, Verizon donated millions in free advertising space “to support mental- and public-health-response efforts to address the novel coronavirus.” In particular, Verizon’s donation is meant to support diverse and high-risk populations impacted by the pandemic. The company is also offering creative and staff resources to help stand up campaigns for participating organizations.
Perhaps the worst example of a Big Tech company saying one thing and doing the opposite is Amazon, whose coronavirus response has been a disaster from the get-go. Early on, an investigation found that some 100 masks on sale on Amazon fell short of critical safety standards. Then came the price-gouging: Amazon said it had warned sellers about sudden price hikes, but sellers said the company’s enforcement approach was haphazard.
Amazon’s failure to protect its warehouse workers has also been well-documented. Criticism and protests organized by Amazon employees have been taking place from the start of the pandemic.
In March, after an assistant manager at an Amazon warehouse in New York organized an employee walkout, Amazon fired him and hatched a plan to smear his name. Just last week, Amazon doubled down on its apparent intimidation campaign and canned two internal critics of its coronavirus response.
Amazon has been trying to do damage control with hiring announcements, but what good are new jobs at a company that treats workers as disposable?
It’s notable, too, that some of Amazon’s more traditional retail competitors have done far more to serve the public good. Walmart, for example, immediately sprang to action, with decisions like reserving designated shopping times for vulnerable populations. Walmart has also demonstrated a strong command of its supply chain.
Others might say this is Amazon’s first go-round as a major retailer with a crisis of this magnitude. And that’s partly true; the likes of Walmart have had more experience, having participated in the response to Hurricane Katrina. But isn’t this always the excuse of Big Tech: that they are learning in real-time and adjusting as best they can?
It’s time to hold Amazon, Facebook, Google and others to the same standards as everyone else. Their response to the coronavirus has provided a stark reminder of their reckless practices, greed and shirking of accountability. They are leveraging this crisis to expand their power, putting profits first.
John Burnett is the managing director and founder of 1 Empire Group, a consulting firm, an adjunct instructor at New York University and a former candidate for city comptroller.
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