By Chris Sanders
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Google, Facebook and Amazon are using their size, reach and technological prowess to help Americans cope with the coronavirus crisis, an opportunity for Big Tech to counter a drumbeat of criticism in Washington.
The three companies have a chance to burnish their images amid intense U.S. regulatory scrutiny by the Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission, state attorneys general and the House Judiciary Committee, who accuse the companies of engaging in anti-competitive behavior by using their clout to defend market share or expand into adjacent markets.
Washington lawmakers from both parties regularly attack the companies with a broad range of accusations, from doing too little to protect children to aiding hucksters who use the coronavirus outbreak to rip people off.
But the coronavirus pandemic has offered the companies, all of whom hold sizable cash reserves and have an outsized capacity to influence American lives, a chance to play the role of savior while casting aside the image of profiteering data usurpers.
“I’m glad that they’re willing to help,” Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican, said of Google’s efforts to develop screening mechanisms for the virus. “I hope that they’re actually helping and not using this as an opportunity to drum up business.”
Facebook Inc was the latest company to announce it wanted to help limit the economic damage from the coronavirus on Tuesday when it said it would give $100 million in cash grants and ad credits to up to 30,000 small businesses in over 30 countries.
Alphabet Inc’s Google was first out of the gate late last week, receiving high praise from President Donald Trump for developing a website to help speed up the process of finding who needs a coronavirus test.
Then Amazon.com Inc, whose founder Jeff Bezos has been in regular contact with White House staff in recent days, said on Monday it would hire 100,000 warehouse and delivery workers in the United States to deal with a surge in online orders. Amazon also said it would add $2 to its minimum $15 per hour to U.S. workers’ wages through April.
Scott Wallsten, president of the Technology Policy Institute, which counts all three companies among its members, said the current environment offers an opportunity to reset how people think about technology companies and will “add a new dimension” to the debate on how big tech hurts competition.
Bhaskar Chakravorti, Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, who has been tracking the effects of digital technology on issues such as global health and economic development, said the focus has shifted to how big technology companies are stepping up to fight misinformation and facilitating a “socially distant economy.”
“We’re not just getting information about the public health situation but we are trying to replicate some semblance of business online with their help,” he said.
(Reporting by Chris Sanders in Washington; Additional reporting by Nandita Bose and Diane Bartz in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Sonya Hepinstall)