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Governments consult with big tech over coronavirus pandemic

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The White House has hosted a meeting with representatives from the world’s largest tech companies to discuss the coronavirus outbreak, while Boris Johnson has called a meeting of tech representatives in Downing Street.

President Donald Trump has been criticised for making sometimes false, contradictory and garbled statements about the coronavirus outbreak, including appearing to claim that US cases were falling to zero. Trump and his administration are under increasing pressure to take decisive and evidence-based action to slow the spread of the virus in the US.

Among other actions, such as banning most travel to the US from the EU, the President has consulted with tech companies about how to manage the outbreak. The White House Office of Science and Technology meeting was led by Chief Technology Officer of the US Michael Kratsios. It was largely conducted via conference call, with attendees including representatives from Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, Cisc and Twitter.

Kratsios asked the companies to coordinate their efforts to remove disinformation and other harmful content related to the coronavirus pandemic. Since the outbreak began at the end of 2019, disinformation has grown around it, including dangerous 'health advice' and conspiracy theories with the potential to aggravate racism.

The Trump administration also sought help from the companies on matters such as managing research. It plans to release a database related to the virus and is requesting that the companies assist medical researchers in analysing the data with the tools at their disposal. A source told Politico that the administration also asked the companies to “provide the government with any data that can help the government track and manage the spreading virus”. However, a spokesperson for the US Office of Science and Technology Policy denies that such a request was made.

The White House also called on the tech companies to help businesses, schools and other institutions to transition temporarily to remote work and education wherever possible.

“Cutting-edge technology companies and major online platforms will play a critical role in this all-hands-on-deck effort,” said Kratsios in a statement after the meeting. “Today’s meeting outlined an initial path forward and we intend to continue this important conversation.”

Governments and other authorities around the world have been consulting with tech companies over how to manage the outbreak, particularly with regards to preventing the spread of disinformation online. Facebook has announced that it will be providing the WHO with effectively unlimited free advertising to ensure that its users are exposed to evidence-based, authoritative information about the virus.

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to meet heads of technology companies at a Downing Street meeting to discuss public communication about the outbreak. Johnson is also expected to discuss how to model and track the spread of the pandemic.

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