A row is brewing between the French government on one side, and the tech giants Google and Apple on the other, over the protection of personal data in contact tracing apps aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Such systems may offer a way out of a lockdown, but the dispute underlines the thorny political, technological, and legal issues involved.
The two companies are collaborating on software that will track contacts between users’ mobile phones. It will alert them if they have been in close proximity to another user who has been infected with the virus. However, the app limits the data that can be shared with public health authorities; the French government views these limits as too restrictive and wants them lifted, having admitted that its own plans for contact tracing are not viable without changes to smartphone operating systems. In the words of the French digital economy minister Cedric O, the government is asking for the lifting of the “technical hurdle to allow us to develop a sovereign European health solution that will be tied to our health system.”
Some states, such as Singapore with its TraceTogether contact tracing app, are moving ahead despite Apple and Google’s limitations. Governments in other countries, such as the UK, have expressed their concerns to the two companies in private.
At the core of the debate — which underscores the apparently growing potential for commercial businesses to become involved in first-order international political issues — is whose role it should be in 21st-century societies to decide the best balance between user privacy and contact tracing effectiveness. The French government clearly believes this should be the preserve of public policymakers, not companies.
So in the next few weeks there may be a bruising battle of wills between France and the tech companies; the French government wants to launch its app by May 11, and the technology being developed by Apple and Google is also due for release in mid-May. One of the dilemmas the companies face is that if they compromise with the French government, others will want the same concessions.
This is not the first time technology companies have stepped into political controversy during the pandemic. Facebook and Twitter took down social media posts by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro that infringed their policies on misinformation that could lead to physical harm.
Bolsonaro’s behavior has frequently been outrageous in recent weeks, with his consistent downplaying of the pandemic as “just a little flu or the sniffles.” He appears to have crossed a line with the social media companies when he contravened public health rules on social distancing while appearing in public with street traders. Of course, much of the public will support the actions of Facebook and Twitter in this instance.
Critics, however, detect double standards, pointing to the social media companies’ reluctance in the past, on free speech grounds, to delete controversial posts by politicians.
These two episodes are only the latest examples in recent years of companies caught in political controversy. So while it is by no means a wholly new phenomenon, it nonetheless appears to be increasing in incidence and salience. Partly, this is driven by globalization, and also the growth of key industries such as the “borderless” technology sector.
And technology firms are not alone in experiencing issues from working with diverse political authorities across the world.
Indeed, internationally focused companies in many other industries, ranging from energy and extractives to fast moving consumer goods, have long been confronted with challenges.
International codes of conduct such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights already reinforce the corporate social responsibility practices of individual companies. However, some of the more enlightened business organizations have recognized the need for a more decisive shift toward what has been termed “corporate foreign policy.” –AN