Apr 9, 2020

Feds should call Big Tech to fight COVID-19, says Silicon Valley lawmaker Ro Khanna

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Some ingenious tech is on offer. Government officials just need to say the word to get some solutions rolling.

Microsoft created a chatbot that makes COVID-19 healthcare systems more efficient, and the CDC is using it. Apple designed, and is shipping, a new type of face shield for healthcare workers. IBM is loaning supercomputing power to scientists and universities who are trying to understand the spread of the virus. Tech billionaires, including Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and most recently Jack Dorsey, pledged donations to food banks and other resources supporting people through the pandemic. 

Should companies be taking on roles that governments could be playing? More importantly, is our government prepared to actually use the tech industry effectively to combat this crisis? I spoke with Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who represents Silicon Valley in the House of Representatives. He says there’s still a lot of untapped potential. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Ro Khanna: Apple has helped with procuring 20 million masks and face shields. Tesla is, of course, producing ventilators. Google is trying to get information out. But there are a few other things that we could be doing if we listen to them. First, we could be enlisting some of these tech companies to get the money out faster. Paul Krugman had a great column about how the money isn’t getting to the people who need it. Let’s have a national database that’s crowdsourced for the COVID-19 crisis where we can use AI to draw conclusions. We don’t have something like that. People in [Silicon] Valley could do that. Let’s get a platform that can help telehealth. Again, that’s something that Silicon Valley could contribute to. Then, we need far more funding, if there’s one thing this crisis has told us. Far more funding for basic science research on vaccines and developments in antivirals. A lot of people at the University of California, San Francisco, and other places in the Valley, could assist with that.

Molly Wood: What does it take for that to happen? Are you saying that those companies should step up and offer that, or that they should be asked to do that, or both?

Khanna: That they are offering. In some cases, it requires a coordinated response. Part of me wishes that just for this period Bill Gates were president. If Bill Gates were president — he basically warned about all of this in 2015 — he would convene all of the people in a room and say, “Here’s what I need you to do.” He understands science and technology. If you don’t have an understanding and appreciation for science and technology, you’re not harnessing all of the tools that actually are accessible.

Wood: Do you have a sense, from talking to these companies at all, that they’re just itching to get in here and they’re not being called?

Khanna: It’s worse than that. They’re offering things and aren’t being taken up for their offers. One of the entrepreneurs designed an ingenious platform to allow hospitals to signal whether they need medical equipment and allow people to supply them, and they haven’t been able to get this implemented. You’ve had people saying, “Let us help with creating a national database” or “Let’s help with telehealth.” I applaud them for that, but what we need is a far more technologically sophisticated response. The irony is, we’ve seen that response in places like South Korea and China. Now, they’ve had problems. They became almost surveillance states. I’m not recommending that we adopt surveillance technology, but we should know what technology can do, and then harness that while recognizing and respecting people’s privacy.

Wood: The same concerns over privacy have always been there. In some cases surveillance and data collection may be expanded by what feels like necessity. Do you think some of those concerns go by the wayside now?

Khanna: No, I think those concerns are there. I would not want us to have a situation like South Korea or China, where you have cameras and smartphones, monitoring my movement — so when I go out, the government knows whether I’m violating social distancing rules. I think that’s way too intrusive. I certainly wouldn’t want my health records going to the government or other entities. But, do I have a problem with data going and being anonymized and then having a sense of whether Washington, D.C., as an aggregate is sheltering in place correctly or not, and where we may need greater policies? No, I think that’s very useful. What I would say is, let’s use data in a constructive way. Let’s have the guardrails for privacy. Right now, I think you have two extremes. You have some countries using it as a surveillance state, and then unfortunately, in our country, we’re not using it well enough.

Wood: I want to ask you about another debate that started in your district. A lot of the gig workers who are independent contractors — I know the CARES Act includes some benefits for these workers, but as we see how essential delivery has become, this infrastructure was created in Silicon Valley. What else could the government be doing to protect these workers?

Khanna: These workers need to be making a lot more, need to have more economic security. The one thing this has taught us is for all of the remote work, there are a lot of laborers who do physical work to support it. We still need people who keep the internet running, who keep our groceries being delivered, who keep transportation lines open, who keep electricity flowing. There are almost 60 million Americans who are still going to work despite all the “shelter in place.” Obviously, I think the government has a role to make sure that we extended unemployment insurance. I think more broadly, these contractors need to be treated as employees, they need to have bargaining rights as employees and they need to have far greater wages and benefits.

Wood: Is that something that you see these big tech companies coming to the table with? They’re coming with lots of other solutions, but that so far does not seem to be one of them.

Khanna: It is something I’ve seen movement on. For example, in Apple’s case, Apple had announced a policy that all of their employees would be paid without question, even if they weren’t coming in. They did not include, originally, the bus drivers and the janitors who were contractors. [The Service Employees International Union] organized, and Apple then said, “No, we are also going to pay the bus drivers and the janitors and recognize the importance of doing that.” They did the right thing, Apple, at the end of the day, but it shouldn’t take that kind of organization. I think these are what I described as the invisible workers in Silicon Valley. They are — for all the talk of automation — there’s still a lot of physical labor that’s extraordinarily important. Our challenge in the 21st century is how do we make sure the gains of the technology revolution doesn’t just go to people who can work remotely or code, but goes to all of the people who are contributing to keeping our economy running.

Wood: Are you considering, or is Congress considering, requiring hazard pay for these jobs?

Khanna: I am. I’ve been working with Sen. [Elizabeth] Warren. We’re working on a plan. If you think of this as a war footing, as the president has said, then where is our GI Bill for those who are on the front lines of this war? For not just the healthcare workers, whom I have so much admiration for, but for the grocery clerks, for the drivers, for the truck drivers, for the warehouse workers? We ought to be compensating them, and I’m working with Sen. Warren and others to come up with something that would meet the moment.

The normally packed Googleplex in the Silicon Valley city of Mountain View is quiet as the tech titans asks employees to work from home to fight the spread of the coronavirus. (Glenn Chapman/AFP via Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

There’s an interesting piece in ZDNet from last month about other countries that have asked the tech industry for a coordinated response to this pandemic. In London, a summit held in early March has been called a “digital Dunkirk,” referring to the famous World War II battle in which small private ships and things like commercial ferries helped evacuate hundreds of thousands of Allied forces from Dunkirk, France. There’s a movie. 

On a less inspiring note, Vox has a piece about how it is fantastic, in some ways, that tech billionaires are stepping up with big philanthropic efforts during this pandemic. The piece adds that it’s still a very precarious position to be in if we have to rely on the kindness of billionaires and not the efficient operation of our government every time there’s a crisis. It is not, as the piece says, a long-term plan, and it can also let those with the most dictate the terms of our response by way of their money. Also, let’s not ignore the fact that they or their companies don’t pay a lot of taxes, or that Amazon warehouse workers had to organize and one got fired for asking for time to wash their hands at work, let alone hand sanitizer and masks.

Also watching

Zoom’s CEO has been making the rounds to try to explain how the company screwed up so much on privacy and security. The company hired Alex Stamos, former chief information security officer at Facebook, to advise the company on security. On Wednesday, though, Google banned the use of Zoom on its company-owned devices (side note: Google Hangouts is a competitor to Zoom). I’m just going to say this again: This would be the perfect time for Apple to release FaceTime for everyone. 

Finally, although Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey got a positive response for setting up that big charity fund Tuesday, Twitter flatly announced to users of its app on Wednesday that it is now going to be sharing your advertising-related information with its business partners. This is stuff like the ad tracking identifier on your phone, which includes location information and whether you saw or interacted with ads. Previously, you could opt out of this, but now, you can’t. Twitter says this will prove to advertisers that ads are working. It’s true, but it also shows that the pressure on the business model is only increasing, and it might have something to do with that deal from early March — the one with the two activist private equity firms Silver Lake and Elliott Management that kept Jack Dorsey in his job as half-time CEO of Twitter, but almost certainly involved plans to make some actual money.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer