Our #BrusselsCalling media series went virtual again in its focus on how journalists covering specific sectors are experiencing reporting during COVID-19. On June 16th, our panel looked at tech and the pandemic, with none other than Roberto Viola, Director-General of DG CONNECT, moderating the discussion. In what he admitted was a first for him, Roberto turned the tables on EU tech  journalists Natalia Drozdiak (Bloomberg), Javier Espinoza (Financial Times) and Hadas Gold (CNN), requiring them to answer rather than ask questions, for a change.

What have we learned?

As the COVID-19 crisis is stabilising, we can look at lessons learned and impacts on our lives.

From the journalists’ perspectives, their work has changed but not as much as you would think. Reporting is still ongoing, and sources are more flexible via email, phone call and video conferencing than ever before. But it’s the personal meetings, ‘ambushing’ people after a press conference or in a bar, and getting the ‘in-person’ scoops that are lacking in times of confinement.

On the tech side, the crisis has shown the major value but also gaping flaws of technology in our lives: we are more connected than ever, AI and data are helping fight the disease, and life was ‘somewhat’ able to continue. But people are still wary of their privacy, data and the dominant role big companies play when it comes to online vs offline lives.

The winners and losers in tech

Looking at the EU digital landscape, start-ups and SMEs have been hit the hardest, as their funding is the first to go when money gets tight. Are public-private partnerships the answer? Not always, the journalists agreed. Corporate independence and the right environment for start-ups to thrive are more important than inventing another Spotify or trying to recreate a European GAFA. Europe should focus on fostering the next technological innovation, not run after those created before. If we want the EU to be a champion in tech, we must look at the supply chains, dependency and resilience of economy. However, it’s not possible to force these things. They have to happen naturally.

Trust but verify

Contact-tracing apps have shown that there is still a lack of trust of citizens when it comes to giving their data to government entities. How can public entities increase the level of trust, especially in times of crisis, and why is the level of trust lower with governments than with large tech corporations? Control is key. Citizens need to have the feeling that they can still control their data.

Is there a post-COVID techlash?

With great power comes great responsibility.’ This adage is definitely true for the role of tech companies in times of lockdown. The tech industry has made life still manageable during a pandemic but has also shown its downsides. The journalists argued that the techlash was never really gone but that it was just amplified under lockdown. The consensus was that tech giants cannot not face heavy scrutiny when they have such a profound impact on our lives. The prevailing view was that techlash, to a certain extent, is necessary for checks and balances.