This report is part of a series exploring the challenges and opportunities of technology for policymakers responding to Covid-19. Our companion report A Price Worth Paying: Tech, Privacy and the Fight Against Covid-19 looks at how technology can be used to stop the spread of the virus and increase the health system's capacity to treat those in need.
The Covid-19 pandemic has sent countries around the world into crisis mode, with many now having to cope with severe social isolation and physical-distancing measures. This has forced citizens, organisations and governments to adapt as best they can in order to carry on despite the enormous economic and social disruption.
One of the most important threads in the adaptation story is the role of technology and the internet. Even as recently as the turn of the millennium, the notion that so many elements of our lives, relationships, work and public services could find a way to carry on while most of us are confined to our homes would have seemed like fantasy.
And yet this is the world we now find ourselves in.
Of course there are many aspects of our lives and economies that cannot be shifted online. Key workers can't staff ICUs or deliver food to supermarkets from behind a screen; hotels and airlines can't fill empty beds and seats with digital subscriptions. And every business will suffer as the economic downturn and disruption carries on.
Nevertheless, far more activity seems to be finding a lifeline via the internet than we may have expected, and many of the technologies that we take for granted are proving essential to maintaining some semblance of normality. In some places, the digital transformation of entire sectors – including parts of government – is happening at a pace previously unheard of. Although this can involve considerable short-term pain, in the long-run it may eventually pay dividends.
The shock to our way of life caused by Covid-19 is with us for the foreseeable future, and there is no doubt that we will need to continue to adapt. Among all the hardship and difficulty there is also an opportunity: to modernise, to address inequalities, and to harness the power of new technologies to advance the greater good.
Technology defines the operating environment within which countries must respond to the crisis caused by Covid-19. This will accelerate innovations that may not have been possible or urgent before, but it will also be a magnifying glass for existing weaknesses in technology and in government policies.
This is particularly apparent in online harms, data infrastructure, systems design and organisational capacity. The policy thinking and solutions developed before the crisis are still relevant today, but now they must be deployed at scale, safely and quickly.
We have previously articulated three key principles for technology policy in relation to the response to Covid-19. When using technology to fight the virus, there are both opportunities and challenges for policymakers relating to each one.
Turn the networked public into an advantage
Widespread access to fast internet connections, devices, software and good digital skills provide the foundations for moving activities and interactions from the physical to online alternatives. This means it is possible to keep some public services available and some companies open for business, albeit often in altered forms. The internet also makes it possible for people and communities to stay in touch despite physical-distancing rules.
Although internet penetration and digital skills are higher now than even a few years ago, all countries have a minority of people for whom relying on technology will be difficult or impossible. And even for those who feel comfortable with technology, abruptly conducting so much of our lives and interactions via screens and apps will be disruptive and has no precedent to guide us.
Lean in to innovation and experimentation
Even before the crisis it was clear that organisations with a digital mindset were pulling ahead of the pack, both in terms of overtaking traditional business models and delivering products and services that people preferred to use. The crisis presents an opportunity for organisations to accelerate their digital transformation, with potential customers and users both becoming more comfortable trying new things and having fewer alternatives.
Digital transformation and innovation is not straightforward, and is about mindsets and culture as much as it is about mastering the technology. Organisations that manage to ride the wave created by the crisis will do well, but many others may struggle and be unable to make the transition. This cleaving between winners and losers may have difficult distributional and political consequences. High-risk innovative companies may also be more vulnerable to the financial stresses caused by a contraction of economic activity.
Be more transparent with the public than ever
One of the defining trends of the internet era is the opening up of access to information and expertise. Approached in the right way this is a big opportunity for policymakers. Technology makes it possible for people in positions of authority – both political and medical – to open up direct channels to the public to issue guidance and explain how decisions are made, all of which is crucial to earning trust and buy-in. Transparency also helps to provide clarity about how long emergency measures will last and how people should plan around them.
Transparency is often difficult for traditional institutions to embrace. It can expose gaps in knowledge and shortfalls in performance, and reduces the power differential between the centre and the public. Without the right leadership or willingness to engage, this can feel like a significant threat. There are also tensions to manage with privacy, particularly when thinking about how transparency in pursuit of reasonable policy goals extends to activity on online platforms.
Managing Internet Infrastructure
Internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile networks are already taking steps to promote access and affordability in many markets but there are still large segments of global populations lacking in internet access. Digital infrastructure, including software as well as physical kit, is crucial to cushioning the impact of the pandemic and helping businesses and communities to survive.
Physical Infrastructure and Bandwidth
Internet traffic has risen, and while mature networks are built to withstand even greater loads, the pandemic is amplifying existing infrastructure inequalities.
Broadband in developed economies is built to support traffic surges around peak evening periods and large events, such as the Olympics or New Year's Eve. For example, BT's UK broadband network has a proven bandwidth of at least 17.5Tb/s, even though daytime usage usually runs at 5Tb/s. So while more people staying at home has increased daytime traffic demand by 30 to 60 per cent, it has peaked at only 7.5Tb/s and plenty of headroom remains. US ISPs are similarly confident.
It is possible, however, that some households will experience slower speeds given the 'last mile' of residential broadband is weaker than corporate or university networks. In particular, video calls and saving documents to corporate cloud networks are high-bandwidth uploading activities not typically used by residential broadband at scale.
UK and French regulators have issued consumer guidance to maximise connectivity, and as a precaution some of the most bandwidth-heavy services such as Netflix, YouTube and gaming downloads have lowered video quality or slowed downloads at peak times at the request of officials. However, core networks remain robust, and policymakers should be wary of acting without a proven technical need, especially given how much of the economy now relies on online video and the fact that many of these services already use adaptive streaming.
Policymakers might consider temporarily relaxing net-neutrality rules to give communications providers greater flexibility to manage their network traffic; for example, to prioritise educational services and videoconferencing during the day.
Telecoms providers across the world could also consider sharing infrastructure and network data to improve network planning, capacity and resilience, spread out the load and generate cost savings to be redeployed in serving less-connected areas. Greater transparency, particularly to regulators, would help mitigate the competition concerns.
Staying at home increases dependency on the internet for information, so removing price and access barriers where possible is important. Providers across the world are taking steps to reduce the burden, including increasing or removing data caps; zero-rating government websites; preventing contract terminations; waiving late fees; opening wi-fi hotspots to all; introducing low-cost data packages; and providing alternatives for those whose networks are broken and cannot easily be repaired.
Nevertheless, 6 per cent of the US population and 7 per cent of UK households lack internet access. Some may therefore be hard to reach by public-health campaigns, and those who cannot leave home to visit a library are left with very limited access to information. We discuss digital exclusion in more detail later.
Internet-based services such as corporate VPNs, or consumer-facing products such as WhatsApp, are under increasing strain, but the market is adapting to the challenge.
Despite some temporary outages, most services will be resilient or merely require users to purchase extra capacity (as in the case of company VPNs).
To meet demand, services must either bring their own planned datacentres online more quickly or increase provision of the cloud-based networking, computing and storage services on which they depend.
Leading cloud providers are offering discounts to reduce unexpected costs but face their own capacity issues; Microsoft plans to prioritise traffic for critical-health and government agencies if they're overburdened.
Some services have seen a surge in new users, particularly platforms designed for collaboration, messaging and videoconferencing. While this is a huge net benefit in terms of increasing our ability to cope with social-distancing requirements, it has also thrown up new challenges in relation to scaling. In particular there have been some high-profile security concerns as apps designed for use in controlled corporate environments have been co-opted for widespread consumer use.
Adapting Government for the Crisis
Government responses to the crisis must be quick to implement and continue over a long period. Digital services will play a crucial role because they can be built to meet people's needs quickly and at population scale. The most impactful digital responses are the result of working collaboratively and in the open; in the internet era the greatest leverage comes from empowering teams to deliver.
Effective delivery relies on organising around services rather than historical departments. For example, to map emergency calls in the UK, seven different public and private bodies are involved. Strong political sponsorship at the centre and a culture of working in the open are essential to improving coordination and minimising information asymmetries.
Central departments, health systems and local government bodies often lack the experience and technical expertise they need when buying technology. This can result in time and resources being wasted on dead-end solutions. To counter this there is a strong argument for establishing temporary, central capability to consult on digital government projects in the style of the US's 18F.
Many delivery teams are held back by poor data management or tools that fail to meet their needs. This includes property and street datasets as well as digital identity verification, which if implemented effectively can rapidly accelerate delivery and improve access to support. In the short-term, an empowered central team may be able to tackle any departmental fiefdoms holding back data sharing and collaboration.
When it comes to building and deploying digital services, leveraging existing code and design patterns can remove much of the repetitive work so that teams can focus on specific local needs. This radically shortens software development cycles so that support gets to those in need as quickly as possible and helps to minimise security risks by reusing tested components wherever possible.
For example, teams in the UK can reuse the GOV.UK Design System and PaaS platform to help new services go live quickly, since they have already been designed for clarity, security and accessibility. Similarly, Canada looked to its child-benefit and employment-insurance services as pre-existing delivery channels to issue cash transfers rapidly. These examples are especially instructive for low-capacity states, where minimising administrative burden and saving time is crucial.
Working in the open also better equips teams to build effective services. For example, UK advocacy charity Citizens Advice has published user behaviour from its website, helping delivery teams across public and private sectors to design for the rapidly evolving needs and concerns of the population.
Similarly, working in the open allows public bodies to reuse other's work, preventing local governments, health trusts and other organisations from wasting time on duplication.
Keeping Public Services Available
Although large swathes of activity will be drastically reduced or put on hiatus by lockdown measures, some activities and services will have to find ways to remain operational in some shape or form. For many essential roles there will be no practical alternative to continuing to work on site, albeit perhaps with increased social distancing and PPE. But in other cases it may be possible to shift some delivery of essential public services online, particularly in health and education.
The adoption curve of telemedicine had previously been slow in many countries, but as Covid-19 overwhelms systems and frontline delivery, digital tools, self-assessment triage with personalised information and guidance have become necessary tools for health-care delivery. In many places this has required a relaxation of legislation, but it is likely to become far more commonplace post-crisis.
Telemedicine has been around for many years, but take-up has been slow for a variety of reasons including tradition and a sense that it would erode the doctor-patient relationship, as well as commercial, regulatory and technological issues.
However, with so much of the world under some form of lockdown, telemedicine has become an important part of the response. Where health-care systems are more constrained, it can also help clinicians reach more of the population.
Regulatory changes have been made in France, Germany and the US to make this possible, while countries such as the UK and Australia have also launched online services, which include WhatsApp bots.
The rapid adoption of telemedicine has been a necessary component of the response to Covid-19: Remote triage minimises the risk of transmission among infected but mildly symptomatic individuals. It has also helped protect high-risk individuals, such as the elderly and those with co-morbid health conditions, to reduce exposure to hospitals and other health-care locations where the risk of exposure is high.
The fastest and most effective ways to rapidly shift traditional face-to-face consultations online is to layer inexpensive, easy-to-use software solutions over the top of existing surgery and hospital systems. In the UK SaaS solutions like those provided by AccuRx and AttendAnywhere make it straightforward to add video consultations and instant messaging as options for doctors and patients.
Not all health-care systems have the digital infrastructure to deliver this service, while privacy concerns are also apparent. There are also limitations to what sorts of advice and support doctors can provide over the internet, including the ability for full physical examinations (though even this may be partially eased by more mature technologies like AI-powered image and video analysis).
Across the world, though, governments should be closely monitoring and evaluating the impact of such services, while the rollout of technology-powered solutions – even if only SMS- or WhatsApp-based – could be integral to reaching populations where access to health care is low.
Putting a country into lockdown necessitates closing most schools and universities, save for a skeleton operation for the children of essential workers (which may end up operating more like childcare than a traditional learning environment). Technology and the internet make it possible to extend a wider range of educational experiences to children who are confined to their homes, but it is important to understand the limitations of these approaches as well as their benefits.
The Sutton Trust outlined six core components of effective teaching and all involve interactive activities and communication: content knowledge, quality of instruction, teaching climate, classroom management, teacher beliefs and professional behaviours.
The first wave of digitisation in the education space built up libraries of learning materials that can be made available to students at scale. This includes everything from digital textbooks and interactive exercises on platforms like CK-12, through to educational content on YouTube.
Now that video-equipped devices and fast connections are more common, videoconferencing and interactive classrooms allow teachers to maintain several of these elements even if they are less organic. Many schools have traditionally been reluctant to embrace these sorts of options, particularly in relation to safeguarding concerns – and the crisis is forcing them to confront these trade-offs head on.
However not every child has access to these sorts of tools. Teach First recently showed that only 2 per cent of teachers working in the UK's most disadvantaged schools believe their pupils have adequate access to online learning during Covid-19. The digital divide could polarise the efficacy of remote learning, by making those with high-tech access sufficiently covered and those with none significantly disadvantaged.
Working collaboratively with the private sector could help bridge this divide. The Global Education Coalition run by UNESCO and including participants like Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Zoom, demonstrates the willingness of the private sector to engage with this issue. (The Tony Blair Institute is also a partner in the UNESCO coalition.) Governments could also work with mobile networks to remove data charges when accessing online learning platforms.
There are some sophisticated tools that use technology to tailor the online learning experience for students. Examples of this include the Century Tech platform in the UAE and the Gooru platform in the US, both of which employ artificial intelligence to match learning modules to individual students' needs.
Of course all of these applications of technology to the education sphere are dependent on the ability of teaching staff and school administrators to adapt to online models for teaching and learning support. Policymakers should think carefully about what support may be required and how schools can work together to make the most of limited resources.
In Scotland, the Glow network provides schools with access to G-suite and allows teachers to build online libraries of resources for their students. The Ministry of Education in the Philippines has also taken a similar approach by creating the DepEd Commons system-wide platform where resources are available for all learners.
Other institutions also have a role to play in generating educational resources that scale. In the UK, the BBC Bitesize programme has extended its activities to include hundreds of lessons online, many delivered by famous faces and experts in their fields.
Supporting the Digital Economy
Technology is a critical tool for many businesses to cope with new demands as a result of the crisis, and for others to adapt their approach and continuing operating. Policy decisions in this arena will have a direct bearing on how easily firms can adapt to this new reality, both in terms of supporting companies to keep going and removing barriers to new commercial models. A technology-powered economy also opens up new opportunities for economic policymakers to gain real-time situational awareness.
Business Continuity and Digitisation
As businesses scramble to move their operations online, or reinvent themselves altogether as digital-first entities, governments can work with them to deliver timely and appropriate support.
The crisis caused by coronavirus has overturned the strong force of inertia in many traditional businesses and catalysed take-up of digital services, with businesses and families alike discovering new tools and adapting them to their context. Longer term this might put economies in a better position to accelerate productivity growth and adapt to the internet era, but in the short term companies that have put off digital transformation will struggle.
This is happening across the board. For consumer businesses, the pivot to online commerce takes in everything from restaurants switching to app-based deliveries through to fitness classes being delivered over video links. Not everything can move online, but the wide availability of supporting, internet-era tools means many more businesses have managed it than would have been possible previously.
New digital businesses require marketing and advertising in order to reach customers and achieve the scale required to be sustainable. Word of mouth may see them through the initial weeks, but they will need to get to grips with digital marketing to sustain their new operations. As well as direct financial support for all businesses, governments have options to work with the advertising industry to provide resource hubs and credits for new online start-ups to help them make the transition.
For example, Patreon, a paid membership platform for online creators, has recorded average subscriber growth across the US, UK, Canada, Germany, Australia and Italy up by around one-third compared to February, while videoconferencing platform Zoom has grown from 10 million to 200 million daily users. Behind the scenes, insurance startups are also adapting policies to enable more on-demand and flexible services as the nature of activity changes, while digital identity providers have stepped up to facilitate remote onboarding, right-to-work checks and e-signatures.
Since the current transformation is underpinned by readily accessible and affordable tools provided by the market, government support should focus on promoting awareness, convening and sharing lessons. The most effective interventions are likely to be based on amplifying and convening – for example via online resources or establishing digital-networking schemes –to accelerate the growth and impact of these steps.
Finance and Fintech
Coronavirus has forced many states to issue large fiscal packages to protect an economy in hibernation. But when businesses and people need support quickly, policy ambition must be matched by effective delivery.
The accumulation of government bureaucracy can have many causes and now is not the time to apportion blame. Looking ahead, the priority must be to deploy systems that work in time for them to make a difference. Tech can help governments to deliver faster, more targeted and scalable support to businesses and the economy.
Governments will also need to consider how best to provide financial support to startups and high-growth companies that might not be eligible for more general packages designed to support salaried employees and small businesses. In the UK the government has announced new schemes to support technology and life-sciences firms, many of which are dependent on access to capital to stay afloat.
Technology will have an important role to play in setting up and managing a range of financial-support schemes. Governments will be trying to balance simplicity against targeting so that already expensive schemes avoid waste. In this respect, taking advantage of data, insights and automation may help people understand whether their particular circumstances confer eligibility and speed up the application process.
Going further, it may be possible to take advantage of open banking, fintech innovations and digital tax systems to make other data-driven and/or real-time adjustments to the financial support governments extend to support the economy. At a time when many firms will be struggling with cashflow, this could make the difference for those at the margin.
Adapting business models and operations to survive the crisis will be critical for many companies, and some will seek to use technology in ways that are novel or were previously obstructed by regulation (for whatever reason). Exceptional circumstances may merit a different regulatory stance in order to prioritise business survival.
As coronavirus disrupts business functions, many regulators are being pragmatic about enforcement by pausing or delaying non-essential compliance requirements and clarifying that no action will be taken during this period – as the UK's ICO, OFCOM, PRA and FCA have done.
More broadly, some new problems arising from the crisis will give rise to innovative solutions – for example no-contact deliveries via drone or rapid finance via paperwork-light fintechs – that rulebooks designed for a different era could never appropriately anticipate. So-called 'regulatory sandboxes' give companies a licence to experiment with new products while providing authorities with a mechanism to supervise and understand them.
While it may be appropriate to reassess traditional rules and approaches in a crisis, it will be important to pair this with additional transparency and sunset clauses on changes in approach. The best way to achieve this is to leverage technology and digital platforms to aggregate and share information about how new rules and schemes are playing out, and to gather feedback and external scrutiny.
Official economic data often arrives too late for timely action, and amid a lockdown its accuracy is undermined too. Real-time indicators can help to plug the gap.
Economic decline shows up in plummeting indicators such as online job postings; flight, public transport and car journeys; retail footfall; new car registrations; restaurant bookings; and surges in unemployment benefit claims (10 million in the US/1 million in the UK).
Similarly, the distribution of economic recovery shows up in GPS logistics data, with deliveries to factories and construction sites in China rebounding but smaller shipments struggling; and growth in online entertainment or videoconferencing services.
The abundance of this data is a direct consequence of a technology-powered economy, and tapping into this gives policymakers new opportunities to raise their situational awareness. Care must be taken in interpreting these experimental measures, but it is better to be informed by data with the appropriate health warnings, than to operate in the dark.
One of the important challenges to overcome relates to ownership and access to data, particularly when companies may justifiably consider it commercially sensitive. Encouraging collaboration as part of a broad national effort could be sufficient to catalyse action, but if necessary, other government financial support could be made conditional on data sharing.
Building Resilience for Life in Social Isolation
With physical-distancing and social-isolation measures in place, many people are turning to the internet and social media to maintain relationships, stay connected and consume information and entertainment. Although there were heavy internet users before the crisis, societies have never before had to adjust to so many people living their lives primarily online. And for some groups of people, the opposite is true, with life in isolation entrenching an already challenging digital divide.
There are a range of online harms that internet companies, governments and regulators have been working on mitigating that are amplified by the pandemic. This is a consequence of the increased amount of time people are spending online, the shift of normally in-person interactions online and some people being pushed quickly through the digital adoption curve by necessity.
This final category of people or 'new digital arrivals' are a particular risk; they lack the experience of engaging in social media and the etiquette of sharing, forwarding and engaging with information they are receiving.
Serious harm to vulnerable groups: One of the worst online harms is child sexual exploitation. The Internet Watch Foundation are preparing for an increase in public reporting of criminal material as a result of people self-isolating at home; especially with schools being forced to shut, there is a higher risk of children being groomed online. Europol have also found that activity around the distribution of child sexual exploitation material online appears to be on the increase.
Terrorism and extremism: Social media is also being exploited by extremists. Anti-migrant and far-right networks are using Covid-19 as a vehicle to spread disinformation targeting migrants, refugees and other vulnerable populations online. They are using it to promote the idea that democracy is a failure and groups should accelerate its end through mobilising social conflict. TBI recently published an analysis on how extremist groups are responding to Covid-19.
Protection of minors: As more children spend more time online during the pandemic, it will be important that internet companies including social media, online video platforms and games companies turn on child protection features by default. Behavioural identifiers and age verification may help and although it is impossible to exclude all risk from stumbling upon potentially harmful content such as pornography, parental controls are effective road-blocks. Increased awareness-raising for parents can be done by ISPs, mobile operators and social-media companies.
Misinformation: Ofcom found that 46 per cent of survey respondents in the UK have come across false or misleading information about Covid-19, and of those, 66 per cent are seeing this at least once a day, leading to incidents like the viral 5G conspiracy scare. Social media companies are now building tools in messaging platforms and in feeds to take down harmful misleading information and educate users – but more targeted interventions are required to prevent the spread of certain topics and content that could directly harm public health.
Mental health: Being in an always-online state exposes people to huge amounts of information, and this can be challenging to process while maintaining good mental health. Ranking and recommendation technologies could be better deployed to help users protect themselves from over-exposure on particular topics and by default nudge users to better manage their own consumption and look after their mental health.
Suicide and self-harm: The conditions created by the pandemic include social isolation, death of family and friends, stress and financial hardship – all of which could be increased risk factors for suicide and self-harm. Social media and online comms have a vital role to play in reinforcing and replacing social connections. Companies should embrace this key role they have and continue to encourage people to engage in healthy social interactions. They have a new responsibility to make people aware of the range of tools and services they provide so all users can get the most out of social media.
Consumer and cyber-crime harms: Criminals are using public uncertainty and anxiety to carry out fraud across digital platforms and in person. Increased online interactions and a confusing array of new information can lead to people being exploited. Consumer-protection authorities have or can build real-time lists of links to fraudulent websites and provide these to internet providers, advertising intermediaries, browser providers, search engines and social-media companies to allow them to warn users or block dangerous sites.
Social distancing has meant social-media companies may not have the moderation resource to effectively deal with the range of harms during the pandemic and AI systems are not fully ready to be the main means of protection. Redeploying existing resource will be important to focus on the worst harms, bringing in intelligence from civil society and charities where possible.
For example, the 'trusted flag' model used to report terrorist content could be rolled out to a wider range of online harms with expert groups and charities verified to take specific moderation action where possible. Given the shortfall in charity funding created by the pandemic, social-media companies should be ready to make substantial donations specifically to cover these costs.
The models of user-protection in place to identify users most at risk of suicide and self-harm could be temporarily extended to identify and assess those who are most at risk of other health harms, either through reading too much misinformation, or concerning patterns of behaviour such as new repeated use in the middle of the night. Automated support services could then be targeted, while recognising this may be an intrusion into privacy.
For a minority of people without access to the internet (either because they lack a connection or device, or because they don't have the required basic digital skills), the challenges of social isolation will be compounded by exclusion from online alternatives.
Digital exclusion is an issue in developed and developing economies, with larger gaps for lower-income families and the elderly. In 2019, the populations of all OECD countries had at least 83 per cent internet coverage, with the US at 87 per cent and UK at 95 per cent. The European Union averages at 84 per cent internet access.
The UK Consumer Digital Index found that 10 per cent of people in the UK, more than 5 million people, had no basic digital skills and a further 2 per cent had just basic abilities. Prior to Covid-19, 61 per cent of those offline in the UK were generally apathetic to going online, which may have changed significantly as people seek new means to stay connected with friends and family.
In the UK, community organisations such as the Online Centres Network have been working to reduce digital exclusion. This includes coordinating with FutureDotNow and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ask businesses to donate tablets, smartphones and laptops as well as connectivity in the form of SIM cards, dongles and mobile hotspots.
The elderly, who are simultaneously the most disconnected and the most vulnerable to Covid-19, could suffer disproportionately from extended periods of isolation. Maintaining some social connections without access to the internet is still possible, and governments will need to think carefully about measures to reduce the potential psychological damage of loneliness when technology is not available to assist.
For many people, social support and activity is often found through religion. Elements of religious worship can be replicated on TV or radio, as has been done in local radio stations in the UK.
Rules of Engagement
The rapid decisions made in relation to technology and the fight against Covid-19 need to be consistent with the values and principles that underpin liberal democracies. Policymakers should embrace new technology, but also embrace the social-scientific developments, such as responsible design, that have been built up in civil society over the past decade.
There have always been trade-offs in technology and public policy, and in light of the current crisis they need to be even more keenly scrutinised. In some cases, it may be expedient to relax rules and test new ways of doing things; the corollary should be greater transparency and sunset clauses on new permissions. Some protection and safeguarding priorities are still worth the bureaucracy and restrictions, and in many cases, such as child exploitation, the risks are heightened further by the circumstances the crisis forces upon populations.
Figure 1: Some examples of trade-offs in technology policy
Freedom of expression
Abusive, borderline or difficult content
Ability to intervene for security and takedown
Free access to information
Existing commercial business models
Locally specific culture and values
Access to content and services
Protection for children
Governance by companies
Governance by governments
The analysis presented here of the tools on offer and the opportunities and risks around them takes us to some general rules for policymakers looking to bring technology to bear. These fall into two categories: gold standards that policymakers should aim for, and guardrails that provide essential protections against undesirable outcomes.
Let markets do their job. The internet was designed to be resilient, broadband networks were built for peak loads, and rapid scaling is a feature of modern tech platforms. Policymakers should let these dynamics operate as intended and only intervene to meet tightly defined goals that would otherwise be missed.
Embrace the internet. Even before the crisis too many policy approaches were based on a strategy of fighting the internet rather than working with it. Now the internet and technology defines the operating environment more than ever; policy stands the best chance of success if it is digital-first.
Make things open. The pace, scale and collaboration required to respond effectively to all the different impacts of the crisis are unprecedented. The best way for policymakers to crowd in support and get more done with less is to make things open. Open source, open data, open standards – all should become the norm.
Focus on user needs. With firms and households under enormous strain, policy interventions need to be designed to put user needs first rather than to accommodate the way pre-crisis institutions preferred to work. Tech companies earned much of their success by delivering what users want. The same approach should apply to digital public services.
Support innovation. For many businesses and jobs the ability to pivot to working online or reaching customers via the internet will make the difference between failure and survival. Policy must look kindly on those who are trying new ways to use technology to stay afloat and provide more leeway than might otherwise be the case.
Protect vulnerable people. An abrupt shift online will exacerbate many pre-existing online harms and introduce new pressures on relationships, communities and mental health. Exceptional interventions may need to be considered to avert some of these harms and to uphold the state's duty of care to its citizens in a crisis.
Close the digital divide. Although the internet is the fundamental reason why so much activity is able to go on despite social isolation, a significant minority do not have access and will see disparities widened. Policymakers must ensure they take steps to close the digital divide and provide realistic options for people who are digitally excluded.
Track platform health. With so much activity forced online, the first warning signs of any problems will show up first on online platforms. Policymakers should consider what some of the red flags might be (from overloaded online shopping platforms to more toxic discussions on social media) and what mitigating actions they should trigger. Internet companies need to prioritise secure data sharing with researchers and regulators, so they can analyse the harms and develop rapid, targeted interventions.
Enforce transparency. If making things open is the aspiration, then radical transparency is the backstop. So much of the technology debate takes us into new territory and the public will rightly expect to know what decisions are being made, what evidence informed them and how they can be challenged. There must be binding mechanisms to enable this.
Deploy sunset clauses. Special rules, new provisions and exemptions, regulatory sandboxes and other exceptional measures relating to technology will be considered in many different contexts as countries respond to the crisis. But when the time comes they should be properly scrutinised and not simply rolled over.
Actions for Policymakers
Technology has a critical role to play mitigating the economic and social impacts of the response to Covid-19. Governments should:
Create resource hubs for small businesses and startups to provide practical support such as online marketing, ecommerce and logistics tools, working with the advertising industry to provide credits to businesses undergoing rapid digital transformation.
Establish regulatory sandboxes for innovative uses of technology to help businesses and/or customers cope with social isolation and physical distancing. Governments cannot foresee all the innovations we will need during the crisis, but they can encourage them.
Take advantage of tech-driven marketplaces/systems to prioritise important groups – for example ensuring vulnerable people have priority access to online grocery deliveries. Technology makes it possible to do this sort of fine-tuning consistently and at scale.
Leverage existing code and design patterns to deploy digital alternatives for as many face-to-face government transactions as possible. When physical proximity puts lives at risk, it is more important than ever to stand up viable online alternatives that people find easy to use.
Open up authoritative national registers so that useful services can easily be built on top of national datasets. This will help digital teams in both the public and private sectors do the most impactful work and join up services around user needs, not the bureaucracy.
Introduce or expand digital identity verification to help people gain access to support more easily and allow government teams to build services quickly. Broader applications built on digital identity, such as remote onboarding, will also help to keep the economy moving.
Work with fintech providers and other commercial platforms to process and distribute time-critical financial support. Ambitious policy interventions are only as effective as their implementation, and now is not the time to be precious about who delivers what.
Work with businesses and tech companies to develop a real-time, data-driven observatory of economic activity. Dealing with a crisis puts a premium on data that is as timely as possible, and technology makes it possible to collate new insights from novel sources.
Equip all hospitals, surgeries and other health-care sites with messaging and online consultation capabilities. Telemedicine is not a perfect substitute, but it is good enough for many cases and remote options will make it easier for patients and health services to cope.
Equip all schools with access to simple digital-learning resources and online teaching options. Technology can step in to fill at least some of the gap left when schools close. Providing digital continuity will help learners maintain progress and reduce burdens on teachers, and increased familiarity can be a foundation for other tools in future.
Prioritise new online-harms legislation and require social-media platforms to strengthen their protections for vulnerable users, especially where harms are exacerbated by the lockdown. The internet is now critical social infrastructure and the crisis puts more responsibility on those who control it; ensuring proper scrutiny will protect both users and the companies themselves.
Create new models of cooperation on misinformation and conspiracy including public-health experts, technology companies and civil society. Platforms need to downrank and exclude harmful content while maintaining the internet's vital role in enabling experts to speak up.
Support people who are using the internet more or for the first time due to the crisis. This should include clear steps to help people recognise, avoid and report scams and cyber crime. Governments should also work with tech companies to block increased fraud and phishing.
Purchase and distribute low-cost devices and subsidised data packages for people without access to the internet. Putting countries into lockdown has significantly exacerbated the digital divide; people who have been cut off must be thrown a digital lifeline.