HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Safeguarding Public Values in Cooperation with Big Tech Companies: The Case of the Austrian Contact Tracing App Stopp Corona

Valerie Eveline (University of Salzburg), Safeguarding Public Values in Cooperation with Big Tech Companies: The Case of the Austrian Contact Tracing App Stopp Corona, SSRN (2021):

In April 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Austrian Red Cross announced it was encouraging a cooperation with Google and Apple’s Exposure Notification Framework to develop the so-called Stop Corona app – a contact tracing app which would support health personnel in monitoring the spread of the virus to prevent new infections (European Commission, 2020a). The involvement of Google and Apple to support combating a public health emergency fueled controversy over addressing profit-driven private interests at the expense of public values. Concerns have been raised about the dominant position of US based big tech companies in political decision concerning public values. This research investigates how public values are safeguarded in cooperation with big tech companies in the Austrian contact tracing app Stop Corona. Contact tracing apps manifest a bigger trend in literature, signifying power dynamics of big tech companies, governments, and civil society in relation to public values. The theoretical foundation of this research form prevailing concepts from Media and Communication Studies (MCS) and Science and Technology Studies (STS) about power dynamics such as the expansion of digital platforms and infrastructures, the political economy of big tech companies, dependencies, and digital platforms and infrastructure governance. 

The cooperative responsibility framework guides the empirical investigation in four main steps. First steps identify key public values at stake and main stakeholders. After, public deliberations on advancing public values and the translation of public values based on the outcome of public deliberation are analyzed. 

This research applies a qualitative case study, including document analysis and expert interviews. In total, 52 documents were analyzed and six expert interviews conducted. Findings show that key public values at stake concerning Stop Corona involve data protection and privacy, (cyber-)security and safety, accuracy, voluntariness and consent, accessibility, inclusiveness, transparency, trust, etc. Public deliberations of multiple stakeholders about public values can help to safeguard public values. While an involvement of EU, state, civil society, and science and research can be witnessed in defining and advancing public values, Google and Apple, ultimately, translate the outcome of public deliberations through technological design choices. Therefore, public deliberations require a public-value oriented process which is transparent and involves a strong civil society and science and research community, and a unified EU voice. There is a clear need for technical alternatives and policy frameworks to organize the cooperation with big tech companies at EU level.

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