The pandemic is already reshaping tech’s misinformation crisis

Since 2016, social media companies have faced an endless barrage of bad press and public criticism for failing to anticipate how their platforms could be used for dark purposes at the scale of populations—undermining democracies around the world, say, or sowing social division and even fueling genocide.

As COVID-19 plunges the world into chaos and social isolation, those same companies may face a respite from focused criticism, particularly with the industry leveraging its extraordinary resources to pitch in with COVID-19 relief efforts as the world looks to tech upstarts, adept at cutting through red tape and fast-forwarding scientific progress in normal times, while government bureaucracies lag. But the same old problems are rearing their ugly heads just the same, even if less of us are paying attention.

On YouTube, new report from The Guardian and watchdog group Tech Transparency Project found that a batch of videos promoting fake coronavirus cures are making the company ad dollars. The videos, which promoted unscientific methods including “home remedies, meditative music, and potentially unsafe levels of over-the-counter supplements like vitamin C” as potential treatments for the virus, ran ads from unwitting advertisers including Liberty Mutual, Quibi, Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign and Facebook. In Facebook’s case, a banner ad for the company ran on a video suggesting music that promotes “cognitive positivity by using subtle yet powerful theta waves” could ward off the virus.

In the early days of the pandemic, YouTube prohibited ads on any videos related to the coronavirus. In mid-March, as the real scope of the event became clear, the company walked that policy back, allowing some channels to run ads. On Thursday, the company expanded that policy to allow ads for any videos that adhere to the company’s guidelines. One the major tenets in those guidelines forbids the promotion of medical misinformation including “promotion of dangerous remedies or cures.” Most of the videos in the new report were removed after being flagged by a journalist.

This example, and the many others like it, calls into question how to judge major tech platforms during these exceedingly strange times. Social media companies have been uncharacteristically transparent about the shifts the pandemic is creating within their own workflows. On a call in March, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg admitted that users can expect more “false positives” as the company shifts to rely more heavily on artificial intelligence to filter what belongs on the platform and what does not with its army of 15,000 contract moderators sent home on paid leave. The work of sorting through a platform’s most unsavory content—child pornography, extreme violence, hate speech and the like—is not particularly portable, given its potential psychological and legal ramifications.

YouTube similarly warned that it will “temporarily start relying more on technology” to fill in for human reviewers, warning that the automated processes will likely mean more video removals “including some videos that may not violate policies.” Twitter noted the same new reliance on machine learning “to take a wide range of actions on potentially abusive and manipulative content,” though the company will offer an appeals process that loops in a human reviewer. Companies offered fewer warnings about what might fall through the cracks in the interim.

What will become of moderation once things return to normal, or, more likely, settle on a new normal? Will artificial intelligence have mastered the task, obviating the need for human reviewers once and for all? (Unlikely.) Will social media companies have a fresh appreciate for the value of human efforts and bring more of those jobs in-house, where they can perform their bleak work with more of the sunny perks afforded to their full-time counterparts? Like most things examined through the nightmarish haze of the pandemic, the outcomes are hazy at best.

If the approach to holding platforms to account was already piecemeal, an uneven mix of investigative reporting, anecdotal tweets and official corporate post-mortems, the truth will be even more difficult to get at now, even as the coronavirus pandemic provides countless new deadly opportunities for price-gougers and myriad bad actors to create chaos within chaos.

We’ve seen deadly consequences already in Iran, where hundreds died after drinking industrial alcohol—an idea they got “in messages forwarded and forwarded again” amplifying a tabloid story that suggested the act could protect them from the virus. Most consequences will likely go unnoticed beyond the lives they impact and unreported due to tighetened newsroom resources and perhaps even more constricted attention spans.

Much has been written about the coronavirus and the fog of war, most of it rightly focused on scientific research pressing on as the virus threatens the globe and the devastating on-the-ground reality in hospitals and health facilities overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients while life-saving supplies dwindle. But the crisis of viral misinformation—and deliberately-sown disinformation—is its own fog, now intermixing with an unprecedented global crisis that has entirely upended business and relentlessly dominated the news cycle. This as the world’s foremost power heads into a completely upended presidential election cycle—its first since four years ago, when an unexpected election outcome coupled with deep U.S.-centrism in tech circles revealed nefarious forces at play just under the surface of the social networks we hadn’t thought all that much about.

In the present, it will be difficult for outsiders to determine where new systems implemented during the pandemic have failed and what bad outcomes would have happened anyway. To sort those causes out, we’ll have to take a company’s word for it, a risky kind of credulity that already offered mixed results in normal times. Even as we rely on them now more than ever to forge and nurture connections, the virtual portals we immerse ourselves in daily remain black boxes, inscrutable as ever. And as with so many aspects of life in these norm-shattering times, the only thing to expect is change.

Using AI responsibly to fight the coronavirus pandemic

The emergence of the novel coronavirus has left the world in turmoil. COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has reached virtually every corner of the world, with the number of cases exceeding a million and the number of deaths more than 50,000 worldwide. It is a situation that will affect us all in one way or another.

With the imposition of lockdowns, limitations of movement, the closure of borders and other measures to contain the virus, the operating environment of law enforcement agencies and those security services tasked with protecting the public from harm has suddenly become ever more complex. They find themselves thrust into the middle of an unparalleled situation, playing a critical role in halting the spread of the virus and preserving public safety and social order in the process. In response to this growing crisis, many of these agencies and entities are turning to AI and related technologies for support in unique and innovative ways. Enhancing surveillance, monitoring and detection capabilities is high on the priority list.

For instance, early in the outbreak, Reuters reported a case in China wherein the authorities relied on facial recognition cameras to track a man from Hangzhou who had traveled in an affected area. Upon his return home, the local police were there to instruct him to self-quarantine or face repercussions. Police in China and Spain have also started to use technology to enforce quarantine, with drones being used to patrol and broadcast audio messages to the public, encouraging them to stay at home. People flying to Hong Kong airport receive monitoring bracelets that alert the authorities if they breach the quarantine by leaving their home.

In the United States, a surveillance company announced that its AI-enhanced thermal cameras can detect fevers, while in Thailand, border officers at airports are already piloting a biometric screening system using fever-detecting cameras.

Isolated cases or the new norm?

With the number of cases, deaths and countries on lockdown increasing at an alarming rate, we can assume that these will not be isolated examples of technological innovation in response to this global crisis. In the coming days, weeks and months of this outbreak, we will most likely see more and more AI use cases come to the fore.

While the application of AI can play an important role in seizing the reins in this crisis, and even safeguard officers and officials from infection, we must not forget that its use can raise very real and serious human rights concerns that can be damaging and undermine the trust placed in government by communities. Human rights, civil liberties and the fundamental principles of law may be exposed or damaged if we do not tread this path with great caution. There may be no turning back if Pandora’s box is opened.

In a public statement on March 19, the monitors for freedom of expression and freedom of the media for the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe issued a joint statement on promoting and protecting access to and free flow of information during the pandemic, and specifically took note of the growing use of surveillance technology to track the spread of the coronavirus. They acknowledged that there is a need for active efforts to confront the pandemic, but stressed that “it is also crucial that such tools be limited in use, both in terms of purpose and time, and that individual rights to privacy, non-discrimination, the protection of journalistic sources and other freedoms be rigorously protected.”

This is not an easy task, but a necessary one. So what can we do?

Ways to responsibly use AI to fight the coronavirus pandemic

  1. Data anonymization: While some countries are tracking individual suspected patients and their contacts, Austria, Belgium, Italy and the U.K. are collecting anonymized data to study the movement of people in a more general manner. This option still provides governments with the ability to track the movement of large groups, but minimizes the risk of infringing data privacy rights.
  2. Purpose limitation: Personal data that is collected and processed to track the spread of the coronavirus should not be reused for another purpose. National authorities should seek to ensure that the large amounts of personal and medical data are exclusively used for public health reasons. The is a concept already in force in Europe, within the context of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but it’s time for this to become a global principle for AI.
  3. Knowledge-sharing and open access data: António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, has insisted that “global action and solidarity are crucial,” and that we will not win this fight alone. This is applicable on many levels, even for the use of AI by law enforcement and security services in the fight against COVID-19. These agencies and entities must collaborate with one another and with other key stakeholders in the community, including the public and civil society organizations. AI use case and data should be shared and transparency promoted.
  4. Time limitation:  Although the end of this pandemic seems rather far away at this point in time, it will come to an end. When it does, national authorities will need to scale back their newly acquired monitoring capabilities after this pandemic. As Yuval Noah Harari observed in his recent article, “temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon.” We must ensure that these exceptional capabilities are indeed scaled back and do not become the new norm.

Within the United Nations system, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) is working to advance approaches to AI such as these. It has established a specialized Centre for AI and Robotics in The Hague and is one of the few international actors dedicated to specifically looking at AI vis-à-vis crime prevention and control, criminal justice, rule of law and security. It assists national authorities, in particular law enforcement agencies, to understand the opportunities presented by these technologies and, at the same time, to navigate the potential pitfalls associated with these technologies.

Working closely with International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), UNICRI has set up a global platform for law enforcement, fostering discussion on AI, identifying practical use cases and defining principles for responsible use. Much work has been done through this forum, but it is still early days, and the path ahead is long.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated several innovative use cases, as well as the urgency for the governments to do their utmost to stop the spread of the virus, it is important to not let consideration of fundamental principles, rights and respect for the rule of law be set aside. The positive power and potential of AI is real. It can help those embroiled in fighting this battle to slow the spread of this debilitating disease. It can help save lives. But we must stay vigilant and commit to the safe, ethical and responsible use of AI.

It is essential that, even in times of great crisis, we remain conscience of the duality of AI and strive to advance AI for good.

Leading VCs discuss how COVID-19 has impacted the world of digital health

In December 2019, Extra Crunch spoke to a group of investors leading the charge in health tech to discuss where they saw the most opportunity in the space leading into 2020.

At the time, respondents highlighted startups in digital therapeutics, telehealth and mental health that were improving medical practitioner efficiency or streamlining the distribution of care, amongst a variety of other digital health markets that were garnering the most attention.

In the months since, the COVID-19 crisis has debilitated national healthcare systems and the global economy. Weaknesses in healthcare systems have become clearer than ever, while startups and capital providers have struggled to operate while wide swaths of the market effectively shut down.

Given significant volatility and the rapid changes seen in the worlds of healthcare, venture and startups broadly, we wanted to understand which inefficiencies might have been brought to light, what new opportunities might exist for founders looking to reduce friction in healthcare systems, how digital health startups have been impacted and how health tech investing as a whole has changed.

We asked several of the VCs who participated in our last digital health survey to update us on how COVID-19 is impacting digital health startups and broader healthcare systems around the world:

Annie Case, Kleiner Perkins

Our current unprecedented global crisis has put a spotlight on digital health. In the last few weeks alone, we have seen what feels like a decade’s worth of societal and regulatory changes that require digital health companies to step up and embrace new challenges and opportunities.

Facebook deletes Brazil President’s coronavirus misinfo post

Facebook has diverted from its policy of not fact-checking politicians in order to prevent the spread of potentially harmful coronavirus misinformation from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Facebook made the decisive choice to remove a video shared by Bolsonaro on Sunday where he claimed that “hydroxychloroquine is working in all places.” That’s despite the drug still undergoing testing to determine its effectiveness for treating COVID-19, which researchers and health authorities have not confirmed.

“We remove content on Facebook and Instagram that violates our Community Standards, which do not allow misinformation that could lead to physical harm” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. Facebook specifically prohibits false claims regarding cure, treatments, the availability of essential services, and the location or intensity of contagion outbreaks.

BBC News Brazil first reported the takedown today in Portuguese. In the removed video, Bolsonaro had been speaking to a street vendor, and the President claimed “They want to work”, in contrast to the World Health Organization’s recommendation that people practice social distancing. He followed up that “That medicine there, hydroxychloroquine, is working in all places.”

If people wrongly believe there’s an widely-effective treatment for COVID-19, they may be more reckless about going out in public, attending work, or refusing to stay in isolation. That could cause the virus to spread more quickly, defeat efforts to flatten the curve, and overrun health care systems.

This why Twitter removed two of Bolsonaro’s tweets on Sunday, as well as one from Rudy Giuliani, in order to stop the distribution of misinformation. But to date, Facebook has generally avoided acting as an arbiter of truth regarding the veracity of claims by politicians. It notoriously refuses to send blatant misinformation in political ads, including those from Donald Trump, to fact-checkers.

Last week, though, Facebook laid out that COVID-19 misinformation “that could contribute to imminent physical harm” would be directly and immediately removed as it’s done about other outbreaks since 2018, while less urgent conspiracy theories that don’t lead straight to physical harm are sent to fact-checkers that can then have the Facebook reach of those posts demoted.

Now the question is whether Facebook would be willing to apply this enforcement to Trump, who’s been criticized for spreading misinformation about the severity of the outbreak, potential treatments, and the risk of sending people back to work. Facebook is known to fear backlash from conservative politicians and citizens who’ve developed a false narrative that it discriminates against or censors their posts.

We must consider secure online voting

The list of states delaying primaries and elections is quickly increasing, with New Jersey adding local elections to the list. Even Congress — in a break from tradition — is rethinking what it means to vote safely in this new paradigm, stirring calls for remote voting for its upcoming legislation around the pandemic.

This debate, however, lacks important context: Many U.S. citizens are already voting online at home and abroad. In fact, 23 U.S. states and the District of Columbia allow some voters to return absentee ballots via email, while five others permit some voters to do so using a web portal.

We are election officials in two states that require us to offer an online method to some of our voters. For these voters, the argument is not an academic one, but an issue of necessity — traditional voting methods simply don’t work for those living abroad, deployed in the military or those with disabilities. As election officials, it’s our duty to stand up for the constitutional rights of our citizens, whatever their circumstances, and the reality is that online voting dramatically improves the opportunities for these two groups to engage with our democracy.

We should not be debating whether online voting should exist, but rather asking: What is the most secure way to facilitate electronic voting? Because it’s already being done. And because it’s needed by some voting groups — whose volume might expand in the near future.

As a country, we currently have three million eligible voters living abroad, and only 7% cast ballots in the 2016 elections, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s biennial Overseas Citizen Population Analysis. This same analysis found that removing logistical barriers to voting would raise participation by 30%. A different analysis separately found that while nearly one million active-duty military are eligible to vote, only around 23% of them actually did in 2018.

The traditional system of mailed-in absentee ballots and centralized polling places is failing these voters, and they aren’t alone among the disenfranchised. The turnout story is also grim for the 35 million U.S. voters with disabilities. An October 2017 Government Accountability Office report also found widespread barriers to disabled voting, such as machines that could have made it impossible to cast votes privately. It’s no wonder that, as a 2017 Rutgers University study found, disabled voting participation has declined in each of the last two presidential elections, dropping from 57.3% in 2008 to 55.9% in 2016.

New technologies offer promise to expanding and securing access for overseas citizens and voters with disabilities. Consider MacCene Grimmett, who is, at 106, Utah’s oldest voter. When she was born in 1913, women did not have the right to vote. Homebound since she broke her ankle two years ago and unable to hold a pen steadily, she was able to cast her ballot last year thanks to an app on a mobile device. The technology empowered her, helping her execute — independently, anonymously, securely and with dignity — her most basic duty as a citizen.

Pilots and tests are happening at different scales in localities around the country, and early results are demonstrating positive outcomes. In 2019,Utah County’s offering mobile-phone voting to overseas citizens resulted in a marked increase in participation rates. In fact, turnout rates for voters using the app overseas were higher than for those who went to the polls in-person on Election Day. Oregon also successfully permitted its citizens to use app-voting in 2019.

Importantly, all pilots include the ability to rigorously audit the results so we can ensure 100% accuracy along the way.

The challenge, ultimately, is how to continue leveraging technology in a secure and innovative way to maximize access. Safety is paramount: We are deeply aware that we live in an interconnected world where foreign adversaries and other malicious entities are using information technology to try to undermine our political system. It’s our responsibility to understand the environment in which we operate as we forge ahead.

But while these concerns can be valid, they should not outweigh both the necessity and potential benefits of internet-based voting. Just as we cannot place blind faith in the infallibility of our technologies, we also cannot fall into a senseless, all-encompassing mistrust that would both disenfranchise millions of voters and shake trust in our elections.

Rather than making sweeping judgments, we need to weigh each case individually. Why, for example, should Iowa’s failure, which involved poor training, lack of testing and trouble reporting caucus results on one specific technology platform by a political party adversely affect whether a disabled Utahn or an Oregonian soldier can cast their vote — and verify it — by app?

Expanding voter participation by ensuring ballot access for all citizens is paramount to protecting our democracy. In the 21st century, that will necessarily include electronic methods, particularly as we face challenges with voters abroad and contemplate emerging challenges at home like COVID-19, where large public gatherings — and long lines — spark new threats to consider.

We must continue trials and experiments to broaden access for voters, while hardening the system and making it more resilient, and that means beginning with small-scale pilots, seeing what works, stringently auditing the results and then employing that knowledge in new rounds of testing. App-based voting, for example, is already more secure than returning a ballot by email, and it also preserves voter anonymity in a way that email makes impossible (because whoever opens the email to hand-copy the vote onto a paper ballot for tabulation knows who sent it).

These are the everyday successes that internet-based voting is producing right now. And they ought to be driving the discussion as we move forward slowly, responsibly and confidently.

How Huawei is dividing Western nations

The relationship between the United Kingdom and Australia is not usually a flashpoint in international relations. After all, the two allies share a common language, ancestry, and monarch. So what caused a dustup recently that saw a senior Australian parliamentarian rebuke the British foreign secretary, and for a group of Australian MPs to then cancel a trip to London in protest?

The answer is fears over Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant at the center of the 5G next-generation wireless debate. Australian officials were miffed when the British government recommended that the company be allowed to play a limited role in the U.K.’s 5G deployment despite calling it a “high risk” supplier due to its close ties to the Chinese government (the company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, served for many years as an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army). The Australian government, a fellow member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (which includes the two countries plus the United States, Canada, and New Zealand), disagreed back in 2017 when it barred Huawei on national security grounds.

Now, two close allies are at cross purposes about the very future of the internet. What’s at stake is not just who equips the future of telecom infrastructure, but the very values that the internet itself holds.

Two countries, ocean(s) apart

It’s not just Australia and Britain that find themselves separated by an ocean (or two). In America, Huawei has become the Trump Administration’s favorite company to hate. In a speech at this year’s Munich Security Conference, Defense Secretary Mark Esper called the company “today’s poster child” for “nefarious activity” while another White House official compared the company to “the Mafia.”  It should come as no surprise that the company is the target of trade restrictions, a criminal action against its CFO, and a concerted diplomatic campaign. 

America’s concerns are twofold. First, that critical infrastructure provided by a Chinese company with such close ties to the country’s central leadership is an unacceptable security risk. Second, that arresting Huawei’s increasing dominance risks surrendering any chance for American leadership in 5G technology.

National security considerations have predominantly driven policymakers in Australia. More alert by geography to the strategic risks posed by China, Canberra moved early and decisively to bar Huawei from participating in its 5G networks at all. “The fundamental issue is one of trust between nations in cyberspace,” writes Simeon Gilding, until recently the head of the Australian Signals Directorate’s signals intelligence and offensive cyber missions.

That lack of trust between China and Australia is compounded by the difficult geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific. “It’s not hard to imagine a time when the U.S. and China end up in some sort of conflict,” says Tom Uren of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). “If there was a shooting war, it is almost inevitable that the U.S. would ask Australia for assistance and then we’d be in this uncomfortable situation if we had Huawei in our networks that our critical telecommunications networks would literally be run by an adversary we were at war with.”

Gilding warned, “It’s simply not reasonable to expect that Huawei would refuse a direction from the Chinese Communist Party.” And no matter what reassurances Huawei executives have given, they just simply haven’t been able to ally those concerns. Beijing didn’t help Huawei’s case when it passed its 2017 Intelligence Law, which obliges all Chinese companies and individuals to assist with intelligence efforts if asked. “People were always afraid [that might happen],” adds Uren, “and having it in writing really solidified those concerns.”

As a result, Canberra’s policy to ban Huawei has been largely uncontroversial. With the exception of some of the country’s telecom companies, “the decision [to ban Huawei] has bipartisan backing,” says Simon Jackman, CEO of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Calling out London

American officials wish their British counterparts shared Australia’s outlook – and haven’t been shy about saying so. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the UK to “relook” at the decision and lobbied Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the issue on a recent trip to London. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Esper has made clear that electing to use Huawei could threaten allies’ access to American intelligence. “If countries choose to go the Huawei route,” Mr. Esper told reporters on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, “it could well jeopardize all the information sharing and intelligence sharing we have been talking about, and that could undermine the alliance, or at least our relationship with that country.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leaves 10 Downing Street after a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 30 January 2020 in London, England. (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

British officials not only believe this to be a bluff – the Five Eyes intelligence alliance is much too strong in their view – but have a different assessment of the risk Huawei poses. “Everyone’s perception of the Huawei risk is particular to them,” says Nigel Inkster, a former deputy chief of MI6 now at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

The U.K. goes even further though. Experts in the British government, which started using Huawei in its 3G and 4G networks back in 2003, believe that not only can the risks be mitigated, but they are being overstated in the first place. “The Australian approach is driven by the kind of worst-case analysis of the risk 5G could pose in effect on the brink of war,” says Inkster. “I don’t think the U.K. envisages going to war with China any time soon.”

Inkster and other top officials remain confident in the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC), which was established by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) back when Huawei was first introduced into Britain’s telecom networks. “We’ve never ‘trusted’ Huawei,” wrote NCSC Technical Director Dr. Ian Levy in a January 2020 blogpost. As a result, the U.K. has “always treated them as a ‘high risk vendor’ and worked to limit their use in the UK and put extra mitigations around their equipment and services.”

Levy and the government’s other cybersecurity experts believe that their system will continue to work. “The basic cyber security measures that have been used for 3/4G also apply to 5G,” argues Marcus Willett, who also served as the first Director of Cyber at GCHQ, Britain’s signals-intelligence agency. “If Huawei had been playing games, we would have discovered it by now,” says Pauline Neville-Jones, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, and previously security minister and cybersecurity advisor in former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government.

British regulations already restrict Huawei and other high-risk vendors in several ways, including capping their market share at 35% and ensuring their equipment is continuously evaluated by HCSEC. In addition, by preventing Huawei’s 5G kit from being used near sensitive sites and limiting it to the periphery of the network (as opposed to the core), British officials are confident that they can contain any additional risk.

That’s not to say Huawei doesn’t face stiff opposition from some corners. Even if you mitigated the risk, it’s “quite a leap to allow the Chinese to be intimately involved in something as sensitive as this,” one U.K. retired diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, told me. And the company is no one’s first choice. “If the U.K. didn’t have Huawei in its system, it wouldn’t choose to have Huawei now,” Lady Neville-Jones told me. “But we are in a different place [than Australia] and we have set up a system which we believe enables us to manage the risk. And by God, we will be on alert. We’re not stupid. [But] you say to yourself, at the end of the day, do you trust your technical people or not? And there’s never been a complaint on backdoors or traps.” Indeed, government experts have often caught coding errors she adds. “I suspect the result of [British inspections] is that technically Huawei is a better company than it might otherwise have been.”

The British position is also rooted in game theory. “Even if you could [bring down the network], when would you do it?” asks Willett, formerly of GCHQ. “It is effectively a ‘one shot’ capability – if used by China, it would undermine the position of all Chinese companies in the world tech market. China would therefore presumably save the ‘one shot’ for war or near-war, in which case it would need to be sure it would work. That is not easy.”

Australian experts are skeptical, though. “I think [the British] are overconfident in their ability to mitigate [the risk],” Uren, the ASPI expert, told me. His view – widely shared in Australia – is that defenders always think they can defend a system until they can’t, and giving a Chinese company access to the network is already a concession too far. “Cybersecurity is all about raising the costs for the attacker,” writes Gildling, the former Australian official. “Network access through vendors — which need to be all over 5G networks to maintain their equipment — effectively reduces the access cost to zero.”

The economic equation in Europe

It’s hard to understate the difference geography makes, though. In America and Australia — Pacific powers — China is physically present. For Europeans — including Britain — the risks of a rising China don’t carry the same emotional weight.

“The idea of China being a direct security threat is still somewhat abstract,” says Dr. Janka Oertel of the European Council on Foreign Relations. With the exception of countries like Poland and Estonia which are reliant on U.S. military support and thus more willing to toe Washington’s line, “European governments have just begun to assess the risk China can pose in the cyber realm.” Partly to allay those rising concerns, Huawei about a year ago established a a Cyber Security Transparency Centre in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union. Unlike Britain’s HCSEC, however, it is not an independent evaluation center and it is not designed to carry out the same functions.

Economics dominate the conversation on the continent more than national security concerns. The fragmented telecom market in Europe (105 mobile operators versus just four in America), has also proven beneficial to Huawei. In a competitive environment where cost has become everything, the state-subsidized Huawei is often able to underprice its competitors. Even in Britain, security concerns were weighed against the fact that “stripping out [the Huawei components already in the system] and starting again would carry enormous costs,” Inkster told me.

Still, Oertel thinks the debate in Europe is being debated on the wrong grounds. “It’s really hard to say Huawei is cheaper than Ericsson or Nokia. No one has the numbers because these are all contracts between private companies. We’re talking a lot of hypotheticals.” Her concern is that while Huawei might seem cheaper now, that might change if it’s able to squeeze out competitors and raise prices.

The battle isn’t over yet, though. Ericsson and Nokia maintain that they are competitive on technology and cost. Indeed, Ericsson is already running 27 5G networks in 15 countries and was just selected by the Danish government to build the country’s 5G network, displacing existing Huawei equipment. Meanwhile in Germany, the government’s move toward using Huawei has run into sharp opposition in the Bundestag, the German federal parliament. Norbert Röttgen, a prominent member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own party, helped draft a bill that would bar any “untrustworthy” company from “both the core and peripheral networks.”

Norbert Roettgen, CDU at the Bundespressekonferenz the occasion of the candidacy for the CDU chairmanship, on February 18, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Felix Zahn/Photothek via Getty Images)

The Trump Administration is still concerned enough about Huawei’s potential ability to dominate 5G worldwide that it is actively campaigning for a Western alternative. “We are encouraging allied and U.S. tech companies to develop alternative 5G solutions,” Defense Secretary Esper said in Munich, where he also exhorted fellow security officials to “develop our own secure 5G network … so we don’t regret our decisions later.” 

Other American officials have suggested even more extraordinary measures. Declaring in a February speech that nothing less than “our economic future is at stake,” Attorney General William Barr (who also served formerly as a long-time lawyer for U.S. telecom and TechCrunch parent company Verizon) bluntly called on the U.S. and its allies to “actively consider” a proposal for the government and U.S. companies to take a controlling stake in Nokia and Ericsson. “Putting our large market and financial muscle behind one or both of these firms would make it a far more formidable competitor.”

Ericsson dismisses these comments. “Personally, I find it odd that Barr is even thinking like this really,” Gabriel Solomon, a senior Ericsson executive in Europe, told me. “We were first to commercial deployment in four continents. We are in a very competitive market.”

Indeed, that echoes a common view in Europe: that the goal of American policy on Huawei is less about security and more about market share – and making sure America, not China, owns the future of 5G. And that has its own risks. “Cutting out Huawei altogether potentially moves us toward a kind of bipolar, bifurcated internet, which if taken to logical extreme would have some very serious adverse implications for everyone in terms of cost, a slowdown in innovation, and general reduction in intellectual and technical interchange,” says Inkster, the former MI6 official.

Things would be easier, Europeans say, if America presented an obvious alternative. Without one, America’s allies feel they have little choice but to use Huawei if they don’t want to fall behind technologically. “The West has got itself in a mess,” says the retired British diplomat. “It is a striking failure of political cooperation and coordination that we should find ourselves in this position.”

There is still optimism on both sides of the Atlantic that a Western solution can be found. As Röttgen of Germany wrote in a tweet in February:

Rather than pick a champion, another solution would be to level the playing field. “Telecoms security doesn’t pay,” concedes Dr. Levy of HCSEC. And “externalising the security costs of particular choices (including vendor) will help operators make better security risk management decisions.” Another option: better national screening investment mechanisms that would limit the ability of state-owned enterprises to operate unfairly.

But to get there requires coordination and cooperation – and that isn’t necessarily as forthcoming as you might expect. Germans still remember that the NSA hacked Chancellor Merkel’s phone – and the Trump Administration’s trade war has targeted Europe almost as much as it has China. Röttgen cautioned that cooperation on 5G was connected: “[W]e must know that tariffs against Brussels are off the table,” he said in the same tweet. “Partners don’t threaten one another.” Meanwhile, Huawei is earning goodwill by sending medical equipment to Europe to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Technology was supposed to unite us,” laments Jackman, the Australian professor; “instead it’s driving us apart not just from our rivals, but our allies, too.”

EPA relaxes enforcement of environmental laws during the COVID-19 outbreak

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Thursday that it is temporarily relaxing enforcement of environmental regulations and fines during the COVID-19 outbreak. The “enforcement discretion policy” applies retroactively to March 13, with no end date set yet.

“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes the challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” said EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler in the agency’s announcement.

While very broad, the EPA said the policy “addresses different categories of noncompliance differently.” For example, the EPA will not seek penalties for noncompliance with monitoring and reporting “that are the result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” but that it still expects public water systems to provide safe drinking water.

The new policy follows lobbying from industries including oil and gas, which told the Trump administration that relaxed regulations will allow them to more efficiently distribute fuel during the outbreak.

But critics say that the policy will not only result in more pollution, but also make it impossible to fully assess the environmental damage.

In a statement to the Hill, Cynthia Giles, who headed the EPA’s Office of Enforcement during the Obama administration, said the new policy “tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws, so long as they claim that those failures are in some way ‘caused’ by the virus pandemic. And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was.”

SF survey addresses gig workers’ concerns amid COVID-19 pandemic

With the novel coronavirus pandemic posing an ongoing threat to people’s health, especially the health of essential workers, San Francisco is conducting a survey to learn more about the issues gig workers are facing during this time. The results of this survey, which should be available within four to six weeks, will help shape local policy decisions.

The survey seeks to understand how COVID-19 has impacted the number of gig jobs available, pay, and companies’ stances on health insurance and paid sick leave. It also asks what workers feel they most urgently need, whether it’s access to protective equipment or emergency funds, as well as if workers are likely to work while sick due to their financial situation.

Conducted by the city’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) and led by UC Santa Cruz professor Chris Benner, the study is targeting at least 500 gig workers who perform services for 12 of the most popular platforms: Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Caviar, Uber Eats, Postmates, GrubHub, Instacart, Shipt, Saucey, Amazon Flex and Drizly.

“This is a very critical workforce for a number a reasons,” Benner told TechCrunch. “They are particularly vulnerable and susceptible, especially early on with drivers taking people to and from the airport. But now as we’re potentially seeing a spike in the online ordering of groceries and food delivery, these people doing the deliveries are providing essential services during this time of having to shelter in home and are potentially vulnerable. And if they’re not being careful in handling food and groceries, they could potentially be spreading [COVID-19].”

This survey comes after Benner was tasked with leading a broader survey about gig workers in San Francisco. That survey kicked off last September but is currently on hold as Benner and his team focus more on the COVID-19 survey. Still, they are analyzing the 700 responses from that initial survey.

“What we know from other sources and what our survey will likely confirm is it’s a large immigrant workforce,’ Benner said. “It’s a lot of people working on low wages and many hours and many people do this work full-time.”

Outside of this survey, the city has begun taking steps to advocate for this essential workforce. Yesterday, SF’s Board of Supervisors pushed for more gig worker protections, asking the SF Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, for example, to establish enforcement procedures in compliance with Assembly Bill 5. AB 5 is the new California law that outlines what types of workers can be legally classified as independent contractors.

This board of supervisor’s resolution, which Gig Workers Rising and We Drive Progress advocated for the board of supervisors to adopt, came after Gig Workers Rising urged California lawmakers to enforce AB 5. Earlier this month, Gig Workers Rising sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials asking them to step in and protect workers during this pandemic.

In the meantime, workers interested in filling out the survey can do so here.

Join our conference call with immigration attorney Sophie Alcorn Tuesday at 1pm PDT

The world has been turned upside-down the past few weeks, with flight cancellations, global travel bans and a massive slowdown of worldwide commerce.

For immigrants to the United States here on work visas, these are particularly ambiguous and challenging times.

We’ve had prominent Silicon Valley immigration attorney Sophie Alcorn of Alcorn Immigration Law talk about all the nuances of immigration the past few months across our stages and through her Dear Sophie column on Extra Crunch, where she has answered questions like “how do I get visas for employees who work from home” and answering questions around the changes to the H-1B process.

Now, she’ll join us for a conference call we are hosting for Extra Crunch members tomorrow, Tuesday, March 24 at 1 p.m PDT (dial-in details below the jump) to discuss all the news that has happened the last few weeks and its impact on immigrants to the U.S. going forward.

I’ll join Sophie and Silicon Valley reporter Natasha Mascarenhas to talk about all the changes underway in the immigration system, with a focus on the visas typical for founders and workers in Silicon Valley. And then we will take questions from the audience to discuss the trends on what Sophie is seeing across her clients and across the Valley today.

If you aren’t able to join us, we’ll post a transcript of the discussion on Extra Crunch. Here’s how to dial in to Tuesday’s call:

Daily Crunch: Streaming services respond to COVID-19

Streaming services will reduce video quality in Europe, we get our hands on the new MacBook Air and Anthony Levandowski pleads guilty. Here’s your Daily Crunch for March 20, 2020.

1. Netflix will reduce streaming quality in Europe for 30 days

EU Commissioner Thierry Breton has called for Netflix to reduce streaming quality in Europe — a move to limit its overall bandwidth usage as more users turn to streaming services for in-home entertainment during the outbreak — and the company has confirmed that it will comply with this request.

Other services have followed suit, with Amazon and YouTube both announcing that they will be reducing streaming quality as well.

2. Apple MacBook Air review

Brian Heater says it feels good to type again.

3. Anthony Levandowski pleads guilty to one count of trade secrets theft under plea deal

Levandowski — the former Google engineer and serial entrepreneur who was at the center of a lawsuit between Uber and Waymo — has pled guilty to one count of stealing trade secrets while working at Google under a plea agreement reached with the U.S. District Attorney.

4. Here’s how TechCrunch is keeping our brains busy while we’re stuck at home

Now more than ever, diving into new skills, old interests and even totally fluffy mindless entertainment can keep our minds refreshed and our days full. From at-home workouts and soothing virtual farming simulators to Catherine’s honestly uncannily good drawings of our staff pets, here’s what’s working for us.

5. Despite canceled trade shows, gaming startups can still win an extra life

As organizers cancel events with massive attendance, like SXSW (400,000 attendees), E3 (66,000), GDC (65,000) and Mobile World Congress (100,000), mobile game developers have felt the crunch. So here are five ways to salvage a launch lost to a trade show cancellation. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Slack adds 7K customers in 7 weeks amid remote-work boom, besting its preceding 2 results

Don’t worry about uptime, though: In a memo about business continuity, Slack said that “the demands on our infrastructure do not change when employees shift away from working together in the same office; there is no difference in load on our systems whether people are connecting from their office, a cellular network, or their homes.”

7. Announcing the Disrupt SF Digital Pass

The new Digital Pass and Digital Pass Pro (to be announced soon!) are a complement — not a replacement — for the existing Disrupt SF conference. But with so much uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve sped up our plans to offer access to Disrupt SF content and networking opportunities virtually.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.