Current Affairs

Tech Companies Are Pretending To Be On Their Best Behavior

Big tech is watching its step and trying to appear ethical during coronavirus. Don’t be fooled.

Open up YouTube and a featured channel appears, offering guidance on the pandemic consuming the world’s attention. It’s the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and its useful, calming videos are prominently placed on the gigantic online video platform. Fire up Google itself and below the search field you’ll see a message reminding users of the recommended health precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19. And on Amazon there’s a message posted on the incredibly precious real estate of the company’s front page that describes the platform’s efforts to fight fraudulent medical masks and price gouging for hygiene supplies.

What a conspicuously socially responsible change from a few years ago! In the past, enormous tech companies were entirely focused on sustaining their incredible growth, and mostly left their platforms to police themselves. This led to infamous episodes like the use of Facebook’s platform by foreign entities in the 2016 U.S. election, and while the extent and efficacy of this tactic is pretty disputable, Russian-based entities bought ads promoting contentious or extreme positions and seem to have inflamed tensions among different social groups. Meanwhile Google’s YouTube became notorious not just for hosting conspiracy theory-mongering videos on its platform but actively promoting them with its hugely important recommendation algorithm. 

But then came the techlash, where the online giants came under abrupt and simultaneous investigations— by the Department of Justice for buying up competitors, by state attorneys general for down-ranking competitors in search results, and by the FTC for failing to police third-party product sales. An industry used to years of bipartisan acclaim and a regulatory light touch has now been insulted by the president, blamed by liberals for his presence in the White House, and tied down by serious European privacy and competition laws.

Big Tech’s management is clearly realizing that in the panicky atmosphere of a global pandemic, the stakes for allowing rampant disinformation on their platforms and counterfeits in their marketplaces are higher than ever. So after years of growth obsession, indifference to curating their incredibly influential platforms, and a preference for dealing with fallout after the fact, the scale of this crisis has moved the tech companies to get on their best behavior lest they end up sharing blame for the impact of the pandemic and the alarming recession it has triggered.

YouTube’s foregrounding of the venerable yet highly unsexy CDC is a conspicuous case. While Google Search was designed to move users on to their Web destinations quickly, YouTube’s goal is to keep viewers on the site to watch more videos and more ads—prioritizing the site’s “stickiness.” Unfortunately, the platform’s largely automated recommend algorithm has concluded that the best way to do this is to promote more extreme views in its “Recommended” or “Up next” algorithm, which drives over 70 percent of YouTube viewing, according to the company. The Wall Street Journal conducted an extensive investigation of the platform’s algorithm, hiring a former YouTube recommendations engineer to study the site, and found it reliably promotes clips drawing strong traffic that keeps users clicking on more videos—which, when it comes to news-related subjects, tends to be more extreme material, especially conspiracy theories from the political right. 

So considering that video searches on subjects like immigration will take users from a relatively neutral news video into alt-right territory in only two clicks, the sudden prominence of more reliable public voices on YouTube in the midst of the coronavirus crisis—rather than, say, videos about how 5G cell service causes ‘rona—strongly suggests that Alphabet recognizes that after years of “moving fast and breaking things,” the stakes are now high enough for curation of the platform to finally be worth it.

Amazon’s reaction has been equally striking. By now, the majority of its retail sales are from the millions of independent sellers who use its Marketplace platform to sell everything under the sun, sales for which Amazon takes a cut. As the pandemic has grown, third-party merchants began offering an explosion of counterfeit products related to the public health crisis, and turned to more classic methods to exploit desperation such as price gouging. A pack of Lysol disinfecting wipes normally retailing for $13.57 was selling for $220 by early March, and a single $8 Purell sanitizer was priced at 50 bucks. There were several merchants selling a brand of protective medical mask, Benehal, which the CDC flagged as counterfeit in 2019. 

Since March, Amazon has been publicly working with state attorneys general on fraud charges, along with wiping listings and banning accounts. The company seems eager to show its platform is part of the solution, not the problem. Sadly, it again required a pandemic before a tech company would take such aggressive action, especially given that years of fraud charges against little-known third-party sellers have been mostly tolerated.

The company also announced that it would begin de-prioritizing shipments of conventional goods (including books, the company’s original market segment) in favor of medical supplies and staple household needs like food. While a natural move on the face of it, there could be significant ramifications as indie sellers are finally able to resume production of their products. Many indie sellers rely on Chinese manufacturers, but even as China now appears to be recovering from its COVID-19 breakout and is reopening some factories, these third-party sellers will not be able to store their goods at Amazon warehouses and ship them onward. Of course some of these third-party sellers are big brands and some are small overseas manufacturers, but they all mostly rely on the same exploited labor model, and if they’re pushed out of business then only Amazon and its exploited labor model will remain.

Factories aside, when it comes to the warehouse staff—which in the past was so famously overworked that in the summer Amazon had to hire ambulances to sit on site—is now being offered paid sick leave. More impressively, this policy even extends to part-timers, normally the untouchables at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy. Janitorial staff have been tripled in the company’s gigantic facilities in order to improve the warehouse sanitation.

Of course, most of these changes have been requested by Amazon warehouse workers for years, with the company only relenting now because of strikes and virus-driven absenteeism reaching a third of the workforce at some facilities as the pandemic took off in the U.S. in early March. But while Amazon’s hand has been forced by events, its ironclad resistance to labor organizing has held course. Workers staged a walkout of an Amazon warehouse in Queens, demanding it be closed for deep cleaning after a worker received a COVID-19 diagnosis. Shortly afterward, one of the organizers, Chris Smalls, was fired for disobeying a quarantine order. Amazon claims he was ordered to stay home in quarantine with pay, while Smalls claims that while other workers had more contact with the infected worker, only he was ordered to quarantine. This suggests retaliation, where a worker is targeted for legal labor organizing activity.

And this was proved by an internal Amazon memo that was leaked to Vice, summarizing a strategy meeting including the company’s senior attorney, David Zapolsky. Zapolsky elaborated a plan for smearing Smalls, stating “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position,” adding “We should…make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” Company CEO Jeff Bezos sat in on the meeting, which had “general agreement” on the plan, according to the memo.

Even the so-called benefits granted to Amazon workers after the strikes and the absenteeism weren’t nearly as nice as they looked. Originally, Amazon workers could only get the new paid sick leave with a diagnosis of COVID-19, meaning they must wait to be tested and for a positive result. Without a diagnosis, workers were stuck with unpaid leave (or regular sick days, if the worker had earned that much), meaning they had to keep working and put other workers at risk. It took additional strike actions and several state attorneys general publicly warning Amazon that their practices were inadequate and would endanger public health for them to add two weeks of paid leave to presumptive COVID-19 cases—that is, people who show symptoms but have not yet been diagnosed or formally quarantined. Two white-collar user experience engineers were also fired after publicly denouncing the company’s treatment of its workforce during the pandemic. The two were also longtime organizers of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, which ran last year’s 3,000-strong walkout of corporate workers in opposition to the company’s climate policies.

Meanwhile at Facebook, tens of thousands of full-time staff are receiving the same “exceeds expectations” performance review, which ensures they all get a $1,000 bonus. What’s more impressive is that even Facebook’s content moderators have been included in this program. Historically, Facebook’s moderators have previously worked in horrible conditions, required to “view images of war victims who had been gutted or drowned and child soldiers engaged in killings,” according to the Wall Street Journal. They have just a few seconds to make a call for each upsetting clip, and all this for temp positions paying $13-$28 an hour. Yet suddenly, in the face of the coronavirus, the company is feeling munificent—or at least enough for a one-time payout of $1,000. 

More broadly than the individual platforms, the industry’s relationship with the Trump administration has been fitful, with Trump tweeting against Amazon due to Bezos’s ownership of the Trump-criticizing Washington Post. He has also attacked Google for its liberal workforce, alleged to be downranking conservative videos. But these fights are mostly displays of battling ruling-class egos. In fact, tech and the administration have always needed each other, with the platforms wanting limited regulation to emerge from their various scandals and the state needing cloud computing for warmongering and Facebook for cost-effective reelection campaigns. 

Since the crisis began, the half-assed war between the administration and the tech industry is officially on ice. Big Tech has helped form the Technology and Research Task Force, which includes Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook, working under the authority of the U.S. Chief Technology Officer. The goal is to use tech platform’s data empires to fight COVID-19, including helping CDC initiatives, or perhaps by developing a means for users to be tested without a clinic visit. And while the major tech companies need to keep their consumer-facing reputations clean, the administration is also contracting less savory organizations. Prominent evil data hoarder Palantir, for example, is already working with the CDC to assist in modeling the outbreak. A notoriously secrecy-obsessed data and analysis company that received early funding from libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel and the investment arm of the CIA, its prior government work includes $50 million contracts helping presidents Obama and Trump escalate pursuit of the undocumented, as well as contracts helping Wall Street tighten its monitoring of its workforce. State governments are often striking their own deals, some flirting with companies that want to use controversial and frequently inaccurate facial-recognition AI to track people with known infections. 

Other tech efforts to combat the virus are striking in their eagerness to at least affect the appearance of transparency. Google and Apple recently announced a joint project (not in connection with the White House task force) to use a program for proximity tracking to alert phone users if they’ve been in close proximity with someone who’s been exposed or diagnosed with the virus. Notably, the tool is opt-in, as opposed to the usual practice of harvesting user data with little notification or transparency. This will of course limit its usefulness, which would necessarily rely on widespread adoption as well as testing. Privacy experts have actually supported this system due to its decentralized nature, where individual phones would hold the data as opposed to a central cloud-based storage model. But far more striking is that Google and Apple published some of the actual software code for analysis by journalists and privacy advocates. For anyone used to monitoring Silicon Valley, it’s hard to state how unusual this is. But again, for the moment, firms are on their best behavior.

Indeed, it’s somewhat impressive that Apple and Google are working together at all, being bitter oligopolist rivals for the giant smartphone operating system market with a long history of pretty ugly antagonism. But since together they run nearly all smartphones on Earth, swallowing their pride to collaborate on COVID-19 is a feel-good made-for-TV moment that Big Tech is delighted to seize. “There has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems,” said the two behemoths in an unheard-of joint statement.

Of course, behind these sunny-side public gestures, the business press is abuzz at how the virus is actually fueling the growth of the tech sector. The socialist press too has observed that it’s only grown easier for tech companies to erode employees’ privacy. “Computers can be loaded up with hidden software designed to monitor workers’ application, web, and network usages,” writes Nicole Aschoff in Jacobin. “Workers’ phones are transformed into pocket-Pinkertons.” The lonely quarantined masses are currently relying more on Amazon and Microsoft’s cloud computing to work at home, and on Facebook and YouTube to feel connected and entertained. Amazon is experiencing holiday-season levels of demand as people fear physical retail. Apple’s factories are getting back online as China moves past the infection peak. The Economist says the pandemic “already has one clear winner: big tech.”

Burned by the storm of complaints about election manipulation and data tracking, Big Tech has learned that at least a moderate level of curation on their platforms is worthwhile, especially in an emergency like this. It’s a major pivot for them to start caring about policing their enormous sites at all, and it took a global pandemic to do it. In some ways it’s much like the pharmaceutical industry, where tidal waves of ugly press have pushed benefit managers to cut or cap criminally extortionate prices for essential drugs like insulin, which obviously could have been done at any time but only happens when the companies fear consequences. And with their influence only growing in the Quarantimes, the tech giants clearly see an advantage to piling up goodwill and putting their most egregious abuses behind them.

In a way, it’s good to see the tech platforms start to take their responsibilities seriously, and make concessions on labor rights, if only to temporarily tamp down people’s growing contempt for them. But when we look at other actions—like Amazon firing union organizers, and companies trampling on human decency such as Palantir being put in charge of critical CDC projects, for example—it’s clear that Big Tech is still not to be trusted.

Rob Larson is a professor of economics at Tacoma Community College and author of Bit Tyrants: The Political Economy of Silicon Valley from Haymarket Books.

More In: Tech

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

Spreading Sweetness and Light! Current Affairs takes on hellfire, why teens love socialism, the magic of Motown, and the legacy of Huey Long. Cover art by Aleksandra Waliszewska.

The Latest From Current Affairs