Apr 11, 2020 - Technology

Big Tech moves into government vacuum on coronavirus

Illustration of a map of the US made up of zeros and ones on a laptop screen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, tech companies are stepping into the void left by a reluctant or incapable federal government — enabling contact tracing, wrestling with testing, and ramping up the capacity of government operations like unemployment services.

Why it matters: In the U.S., these giant firms — teeming with creative and restless employees, cushioned by big financial reserves and spurred on by the urgency of the moment — have stopped waiting for the government to move and begun taking their own initiative.

Driving the news: Friday afternoon, Apple and Google, rivals who manage the world's two dominant smartphone ecosystems, announced a joint project to enable phone-based contact tracing using their phones' short-distance Bluetooth-based networking signals.

  • They'll offer programming interfaces and operating-system integrations for iOS and Android — allowing governments here and abroad to provide apps that tell users when they've crossed paths with people who've tested positive for the coronavirus.
  • They say they've designed the system to protect individual users' privacy while serving public health needs.
  • The companies undertook this collaboration without direction from the federal government, but in consultation with governments and health authorities around the world.
  • Yes, but: Writing new system code might be easier than getting millions to install and use a new app based on that code.

Meanwhile, on Thursday the Washington Post reported that Amazon is planning to build its own virus testing facility to screen its workers.

  • The online retail giant's delivery business has skyrocketed thanks to shelter-in-place orders, but the firm has seen virus outbreaks at 64 of its facilities, per the Post, and several walk-outs by fearful warehouse workers.
  • Testing in the U.S. has lagged behind demand from the earliest days of the crisis, when a flaw hobbled the first wave of test kits based on a CDC design.
  • "We are not sure how far we will get in the relevant timeframe," an Amazon blog post read, "but we think it’s worth trying, and we stand ready to share anything we learn with others."

Also last week, as millions of newly unemployed workers flooded state websites, Google helped provide New York State with a new portal to manage the surge of benefits applications.

Flashback: Last month, a confusing announcement by President Trump about a new Google project for screening COVID-19 patients left the company scrambling to clarify what was actually in its product pipeline while not antagonizing the White House.

Our thought bubble: Public-private partnerships are common in times of crisis, and tech companies always love to show off their "how can we help?" reflexes when calamities arise.

  • But the pandemic response is breaking from the normal pattern in which government calls for action, specifies needs, and sets standards and priorities while companies apply expertise and deliver results.
  • Instead, this time around, in the absence of clear signals and coordination from Washington, the tech giants are having to forge paths of their own.

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