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The Tech Giants’ Invisible Helpers

  • July 09, 2020

The internet powers aren’t doing this for selfless reasons. They know that if they help improve the world’s internet-carrying backbone, we are likely to spend more time Googling, watching YouTube kittens and pinging friends on WhatsApp.

Few other companies can afford to build undersea internet cables, have the same level of skill in running data centers, or care so much about the internet’s boring backbone. Little companies and all us kitten lovers benefit from the tech superpowers’ mastery over the online plumbing, but the giants benefit more. In some cases, the pipes they’re building carry their digital traffic alone.

We tend to focus on tech companies’ dominance over parts of the internet we can see, like search engines and social media sites. But the superpowers’ command of the invisible infrastructure of the digital world gives them an untouchable advantage. The boring stuff turns out to be incredibly important.

No, but also a little.

Some U.S. states and countries have released smartphone apps to help notify people if they’ve come into contact with someone who later tests positive for the coronavirus. These digital helpers can’t stop a pandemic, but they’re supposed to be one tool to help public health officials limit the spread of infection.

I’ve written before about a two-question test for any technology like this: Does it work, and is it creepy? No technology can be perfectly effective, so we and our elected representatives have to decide what balance of creepy and effective we’re willing to accept.

In Norway, the government decided the creepy outweighed the effective.

My colleague Natasha Singer wrote about a temporary ban on Norway’s coronavirus-tracking app after officials found it didn’t justify the risk of the app’s collection of large amounts of people’s personal information.

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