COVID-19, tech firms, and the case for data sharing

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It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention that some tech firms—especially big tech platforms—have played a prominent role in helping us weather the COVID-19 crisis. They have the capacity to generate, analyze, and disseminate data that is valuable in times of disruption. Indeed, big tech could be considered one of the few winners from the crisis, particularly those firms that offer e-commerce, social media, search, work solutions, and cloud services, which have benefited from shifts in consumption patterns toward online business.

But questions are being raised about the long-term implications of these recent developments. With the market position of some tech platforms being strengthened through the crisis, there may be consequences for competition and consumer protection.

So what are the risks that policymakers might need to mitigate to fully harness the benefits of the positive work done by data-driven tech platforms?

In some cases, tech platforms are delivering public services—often in partnership with governments. Nigeria-based e-commerce platform Jumia has been working with governments across Africa to include information on COVID-19 on its platform. The company has also offered its logistics networks to distribute health pamphlets and face masks. Facebook has been assisting governments in reaching citizens with health alerts through its messenger and Whatsapp platforms. In Kenya, the dominant (partially owned by the government) mobile money platform, M-Pesa, waived all fees on person-to-person transactions below a threshold during the pandemic after a request from the Central Bank of Kenya.

The computing capacity of big tech platforms, along with their access to large datasets, is valuable in fighting COVID-19, although there are concerns over what that means for privacy and competition. Alibaba, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and IBM have offered their computing resources or artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to governments and researchers to improve disease diagnostics and analysis. Privacy concerns have been raised around Apple and Google’s COVID-19 contract tracing app. And lawmakers have called for reassurance that health data collected through Google’s screening tools will not be used to gain commercial advantage in the future. A recent review of six COVID-19 AI chatbot solutions that partner with governments in the United States found that their data collection and storage policies were inconsistent and sometimes unclear.

Public confidence that personal data will not be repurposed for other uses must be assured. Some firms are responding to data concerns. For instance, a COVID-19 data partnership between the government of the United Kingdom and tech firms, including Google and Palantir Technologies, has explicitly promised to destroy its data store after the pandemic. Governments could think more about open data initiatives for non-personally identifiable data collected during the pandemic—particularly when gathered under government contracts—which could help other firms and countries in tackling the crisis.  A recent paper concluded that very few COVID-targeted AI apps have been able to reach operational maturity, partly due to a lack of large datasets. Data sharing through open repositories would be helpful.   

Beyond health services, some data-driven platforms have adapted their usual commercial activities to address the crisis. Jumia and Amazon waived seller fees on critical supplies. Amazon is prioritizing deliveries to hospitals and governments, as well as the delivery of certain consumer products—prompting some sellers to complain of advantages provided to Amazon’s own products. E-commerce players globally have been encouraged to monitor excessive pricing practices by their sellers, leading to Amazon suspending thousands of sellers in the United States alone and Jumia delisting hundreds of products in Nigeria. Meanwhile, in Kenya, to support trading by small and medium-sized enterprises, the Central Bank approved a significant increase in M-Pesa’s transaction and storage limits, a regulatory change M-PESA had campaigned for since 2018.  

Data and insights being generated through the crisis will likely shape the playing field for firms in coming years. Data on behavior, demand, supply, logistics, and sources of finance can help overcome and rebuild from the crisis. Some job search platforms now have specific COVID-19 listings pages for those who have lost jobs in the crisis. Analytics from Glassdoor charted a 23 percent reduction in hiring month-on-month in the tourism and travel sector but small increases in the health and hospital sectors as well as in the tech sector. Jobs tools offered by widely used platforms like Facebook may be helpful to generate data for low- and middle-income countries given these companies’ ubiquity.

Governments can take steps to encourage different types of data sharing between firms. Competition authorities globally have recently been relaxing rules around information sharing by competing firms to manage demand and supply chains around COVID-19. This includes data sharing or pooling arrangements—including by tech platforms—but relies on firms volunteering to share data. There may be situations where regulators take a stronger stance to ensure that some data are shared with public entities or firms that deliver essential goods and services and can help rebuild supply chains. This should apply particularly to firms with a dominant market position that are generating data through a COVID-related government initiative.

Developing mechanisms to promote pro-competition data sharing—while ensuring protection of personal data—can help countries fully harness the benefits of data-driven initiatives going forward. 


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