Facebook has said that messaging activity has increased by 50% in those countries hit hard by the virus. Amazon is planning to hire 100,000 new staff to keep up with higher e-commerce orders. The big tech firms are also a bastion of financial stability: together Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have $570bn of gross cash on their balance-sheets. Shares in these firms have outperformed the market since late January.
Just now the effort to fight the virus seems all-consuming. India declared a 21-day lockdown starting on March 24th. Having insisted that it was all but immune to a covid-19 outbreak, Russia has ordered a severe lockdown, with the threat of seven years’ prison for gross violations of the quarantine. Some 250m Americans have been told to stay at home. Each country is striking a different trade-off—and not all of them make sense.
In fact, more than ever it is clear that big tech firms act as vital utilities. Therein lies the trap, because almost everywhere other utilities, such as water or electricity, are heavily regulated and have their prices and profits capped. Once this crisis passes, startled citizens and newly emboldened governments could make a push for the state to have similar control over big tech.
The companies seem to sense this danger. Their best defence is to propose a new deal to the citizens of the world. That means clear and verifiable rules on how they publish and moderate content, helping users own, control and profit from their own data; as well as fair treatment of competitors that use their platforms. This approach may even be more profitable in the long run. Today the most valuable firm in America is Microsoft, which has been revived by building a reputation for being trustworthy. It is an example that the other big tech platforms—or digital utilities, as they are about to become known—should follow.