COVID-19 offers tech a chance to improve its image

Practicing responsible business ethics isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also good business.

COVID-19 offers tech a chance to improve its image
The COVID-19 pandemic offers Big Tech a golden opportunity to rebuild the public trust it squandered during the past four years. Americans’ reliance on tech has soared since people began sheltering in place. The industry should rise to the moment, doing everything possible during the crisis to restore confidence in technology’s ability to be a force for good in the world. Some companies, including Google, Cisco and Facebook, have made generous contributions to support struggling businesses, organizations and health care workers.  Apple and other tech firms have donated millions of masks they had stockpiled during the California wildfires to U.S. health care workers. That’s appreciated. But this is about a more fundamental change in the industry, which has been and will continue to be a critical part of the nation’s coronavirus response. It’s time for tech leaders to embrace privacy and consumer protections they have so long resisted. For starters, they can withdraw their long-standing opposition to fundamental online user safeguards, including the Internet Bill of Rights being developed by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara. Privacy guarantees are emerging as a major issue in the effort to develop an exit strategy from the pandemic. Aggressive contact tracing will be essential to identifying and tracking individuals with COVID-19 and determining who they may have put at risk for infection. Guarantees need to be in place that ensure individual’s privacy rights will not be trampled in the process. The Bay Area’s biggest companies are largely modeling good behavior. Google and Apple are teaming up to develop a contact tracing app that would use Bluetooth technology, potentially eliminating many of the privacy concerns. While they talk about privacy concerns, we will soon see if they back that up in the development of these critical new products. Meanwhile, tech firms are working overtime to eliminate misinformation from search and social networking sites and prominently displaying links to the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization. But there are still glaring examples of misconduct. Zoom’s widespread security issues are the direct result of taking shortcuts, bypassing steps that could have better protected user’s privacy. The firm’s videoconferencng app, which has surged in popularity from 10 million users in December to 200 million in March, has been beset by privacy problems. More than 500,000 Zoom accounts have reportedly been sold on hacker forums, and the Pentagon, Google and multiple schools have banned employees from using the San Jose company’s technology. Price gouging in the sale of personal protection equipment on social media web sites also has been a recurring problem. Facebook, for example, announced March 6 that it would temporarily ban commerce listings and advertisements for medical face masks during the COVID-19 crisis. But reports of ads popping up on Facebook continue, with sellers then using Whatsapp’s encrypted technology to make the actual sale without traceable accountability. It’s one thing for Facebook to struggle with controlling individuals’ inappropriate media posts, but it’s inexcusable for the company to not better manage its ad listings. Practicing responsible business behavior isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also good business. Rebuilding trust must be a priority for the industry if it hopes to maintain its long-term growth, both at home and abroad. The pandemic response provides technology firms the chance to prove the nation’s and world’s trust in them is not misplaced.