with Tonya Riley

With Tonya Riley

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Silicon Valley could play a critical role in the federal government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.  

The White House yesterday convened leaders from top tech companies including Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and top tech trade groups to seek their help in limiting misinformation about covid-19 and tracking the virus's spread, my colleague Tony Romm reports. They also discussed how the companies could help build artificial intelligence tools to help medical researchers glean insights from a new database of coronavirus-related scholarly literature to be released in the coming days, according to a White House news release. 

“Cutting edge technology companies and major online platforms will play a critical role in this all-hands-on-deck effort,” said U.S. chief technology officer Michael Kratsios in a statement.  

The phone-and-video conversation, coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, also included representatives from across federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The meeting was a rare display of unity between the Trump administration and Silicon Valley as the nation races to respond to the coronavirus crisis. There's growing urgency as the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. grows to more than 1,000 in 39 states, and the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. 

Tech companies are ready to step up, according to the Consumer Technology Association, one of the tech trade groups that participated in yesterday's conversation with the White House. “Digital health innovations are improving how we care for the sick, communicate critical information and prevent the spread of infection,” said CTA president Gary Shapiro. “Tech companies’ products cannot only track and mitigate the spread of illness, but also help the government protect public health.”

Here’s how tech companies are planning to assist Washington in fighting covid-19:

Researchers at the Energy Department are using IBM's supercomputer to identify drug compounds to disable the coronavirus, according to a recent company blog post. The company also made its clinical health trial software available free to federal agencies. 

Facebook is exploring how its data can be used to help contain the virus's spread. Researchers are using aggregated and Facebook data — including mobility data and population density maps — to study how the virus is spreading, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. 

Google is providing $25 million in ad credits to the WHO and government agencies, and it said it will provide more throughout for the year, according to a recent blog. Facebook has also promised to give the organization as many free ads as they need for their coronavirus response along with other in-kind support. 

Twitter has opened up lines of communication with governments and health organizations to help troubleshoot account issues and get their experts verified.

Microsoft and Amazon, which are both headquartered in Washington state where the outbreak has been particularly acute, have been active in the local response. Microsoft for instance donated $1 million to Puget Sound's covid-19 response fund. 


BITS: Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) wants the White House's coronavirus task force to come up with a plan to crack down on foreign adversaries and scammers profiting off coronavirus misinformation, he wrote in a letter to Vice President Pence yesterday.

“In many instances, we have seen misinformation spread by those seeking to profit from untested and potentially dangerous products misrepresented as effective treatments for the virus,” Warner wrote. “Simply put — this conflicting messaging and misinformation will weaken our ability to respond to COVID-19 and significantly undermine ongoing public health efforts.”

That could include cracking down on the ways scammers target Amazon shoppers:

  • Top search results for coronavirus on Amazon surfaced a number of bogus books on the disease ahead of Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer, Ben Collins at NBC News found. Some of the top results were plagiarized from news sources and published under the names of doctors who didn't exist. Other books found by NBC News promoted misinformation about “natural” cures not vetted by health officials.
  • Fake products flooding Amazon could cost users their health, not just money. More than 100 safety masks on Amazon lacked protection and certification claims or were deceptively labeled, Alexandra Berzon and Daniela Hernandez at the Wall Street Journal found.
  • That's not all: Review watchdog FakeSpot found fake coronavirus tests, including one for your dog, on Amazon.

NIBBLES: Lawmakers from both parties sought to convince critics at a key hearing yesterday that their controversial new bill intended to prevent child exploitation would not endanger encrypted technologies, my colleague Joseph Marks reports.

“This bill is not about the encryption debate, but the best business practice,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the key force behind the EARN IT Act, said in his opening remarks. 

Opponents of the bill expressed concerns that instead of preventing child exploitation, the legislation could give lawmakers the ability to force tech companies to weaken or refrain from using encryption. The bill would create a commission to set best practices for tech companies to combat child exploitation online. If the companies fail to meet those guidelines, the government could strip them of their protections under Section 230, a law that prevents tech companies from being held liable for user-generated content.

The hearing marked a rare moment of consensus across party lines in Washington. The bill's Democratic co-sponsors argued companies were focusing on the bill's impact on strong encryption to distract from their real concern: losing broad legal immunity for posts on their services. 

“I think encryption is a red herring,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn), who co-sponsors the legislation, told Joseph. “If we said we're going to prohibit any ban on end-to-end encryption they would say, “Oh, now it's full of loopholes or it's nonbinding.' They would have some other reason to oppose it.”

“The tech companies are so self-interested and self-absorbed that they're focusing on how their legal shield may be pierced rather than how they shield children from abuse and exploitation,” he added.

Will Cathcart, head of encrypted messaging app WhatsApp, said on Twitter he was glad to see lawmakers stand up for encryption — but that their promises need to be codified in the legislation.

BYTES: U.S. states are the new battleground in the fight over proposed taxes on income generated by online services, Ashley Gold at The Information reports.  Maryland, Nebraska, West Virginia, South Dakota and New York have all proposed some version of a digital tax this year, drawing the ire of tech companies and business groups.

The new measures are a necessary check on the growing power of Big Tech companies, state lawmakers tell Ashley.

“Just like back 50 years ago when new taxes were being put on oil and gasoline, we’re in a data economy, and we should be having taxes that reflect that,” Democratic New York State Sen. David Carlucci told Ashley. He’s co-sponsoring a bill that would impose a 5% tax on the gross income of large tech companies earned in the state.

But tax experts say the state laws could run afoul of federal ones. White House officials have slammed France and other European countries for unfairly singling out American tech companies in their proposals to tax giants such as Facebook and Google. Critics might argue similar challenges against state laws.

Google, Facebook and Amazon declined to comment on the state proposals to Ashley.


— News from the private sector:


— Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) introduced legislation to ban all federal employees from using TikTok on government devices today. The State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department and the TSA have already banned TikTok on federal government devices because of national security concerns. TikTok has denied allegations it provides U.S. user data to China or any other foreign governments.

— More news from the public sector:


— Amazon will offer two weeks of pay to all workers diagnosed with covid-19 or placed into quarantine, including part-time warehouse staff, the company announced yesterday. The company will also establish an “Amazon Relief Fund” with a $25 million initial contribution of $25 million to support delivery drivers, Amazon Flex participants and seasonal employees. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

— More news about tech workforce and culture:


—  Tech news generating buzz around the Web:


  • Twitter's policy team added Jessica Herrera-Flanigan as a vice president of the Americas and Monique Meche as vice president of global public policy and philanthropy.



  • Code For America will host a virtual event on working from home today at 9am. Register here.