The coronavirus could offer technology firms a shot at redemption
After years of criticism for their outsized power and influence, tech industry executives may now be poised for a moment of redemption.
As the coronavirus pandemic tears through the U.S., money is already flowing in from Silicon Valley heavyweights. Bill Gates has pledged more than $100 million from his family foundation to fight the disease. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has put money toward new equipment to try to quadruple Covid-19 testing in the California Bay Area. And Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has teamed up with LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and other Silicon Valley notables to donate more than $5 million to feed impacted families.
And on Monday Microsoft Corp., Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Reddit and Twitter Inc. issued a joint statement that the companies were working together to combat misinformation, elevate "authoritative content" and share "critical updates in coordination with government healthcare agencies."
Tech executives were early to worry about the spread of the virus (Andreessen Horowitz put up its no-handshakes sign more than a month ago). That meant they were also among the first to ask employees to stay home to prevent contagion. Meanwhile, chiefs at Amazon.com Inc., Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft and others have been meeting with White House officials to discuss ways to help. Google is adding a new website later this week that will serve up verified information on the disease, and its sister company, Verily, is working on a website to screen people for coronavirus tests in partnership with U.S. officials, though tests are initially limited to residents in two California counties.
Tech companies and their execs are smart to join the disease response. In many cases, they're well-positioned to make-good on the founding ideals of their industry: using technology to make a significant positive difference in the world.
But as the economic crisis worsens, these companies may have to make more substantial, and potentially painful choices if they truly want to help. Even though tech firms quickly implemented remote working policies for most of their white-collar employees, the world will be watching how companies like Amazon handle things such as paid sick leave for warehouse and other hourly workers and contractors. The same goes for how tech giants not only police misinformation, but enforce their refund policies (Airbnb Inc.), provide safe food delivery (DoorDash Inc., Instacart Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc.), and keep financial services up and running (Robinhood Markets Inc.).
For years, tech has benefited from a booming economy. Now that things are sliding backward, companies could face pressure from investors to take actions that leave workers and the rest of us worse-off. Instead, they should rise to the occasion to fulfill their lofty mission statements, and maybe repair their tarnished reputations along the way.
And here's what you need to know in global technology news
At least five workers at Amazon's European warehouses have the coronavirus, and some staffers in the company's main Italian logistics hub have called for a strike. The news comes as Amazon struggles to fulfill a surge in demand for deliveries while people around the world shelter in place. Meanwhile, the company is trying to hire 100,000 workers in the U.S.
In non-virus related news, big tech companies are snapping up all the hot artificial intelligence startups. That means that AI firepower is even more concentrated in the hands of a few giants.
Some analysts are saying this is the time to buy Lyft and Uber, whose stocks have plunged. Meanwhile, Peloton shares got a boost on Monday.
The tech mecca of San Francisco, along with five other Bay Area counties, is under a government directive to 'shelter in place' for the next three weeks. That means most businesses will shut down, though grocery stories and pharmacies will remain open, and walks outside are encouraged—as long as people stay at least six feet apart.