Viewing tech giants as a geopolitical force

Viewing tech giants as a geopolitical force
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The rapid ascendance of a handful of tech startups to a giant, powerful independent geopolitical force not only has taken governments unprepared but also caught companies off guard. Traditionally, there has been some degree of separation between the political and commercial realms, each with its own source of legitimacy. Over the years, a confluence of circumstances sidelined governments, leaving behind an unregulated market. Innovative tech giants emerged with little foresight about their role in society. Unelected, they ended up eroding the line between political and commercial. Today, their political naivete and emphasis on profit over principle could encode authoritarianism into our future, and meanwhile, the governments’ punitive approach is late and futile.

Historically, public surveillance, citizens’ data, influencing and mobilizing citizens, and controlling public infrastructure have been the monopoly of government.

Yet, tech giants have morphed into this space, even produced killer AIs (artificial intelligence) and other intelligence weapons. The gravity of this deregulated market came to the fore with Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, which demonstrated the extent to which citizens’ privacy could be violated and showed what data was collected and accessed by tech platforms and government sources.

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Brexit and the 2016 U.S. election graphically showed how manipulating data could affect democratic systems.

Similarly, the 2017 blackout in Ukraine showed how cyber attacks could weaponize technology and pose catastrophic threats to the digitized state infrastructure.

The recent shutdown of the Internet by the Iranian government also demonstrated the power that authoritarian governments have amassed to disrupt the free dissemination of information in their societies.

On the global scene, tech giants have assumed powerful and independent geopolitical roles. While the national security background runs deep in the veins of some Silicon Valley tech platforms, and Chinese companies are perceived as closely associated with their government, still, most tech giants prefer to appear politically neutral and to be independent. 

Google’s on-and-off relationship with China since 2004 — discussing terms of trade, but also censorship and human rights — is a good example. It may have received some help from the U.S. government at first, but today, Google is a powerful geopolitical actor negotiating directly with foreign entities and behind closed doors. Last July, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel questioned: “Why Google has reportedly been considering operating a search engine in China again while deciding not to renew an artificial intelligence contract with the Pentagon?” Google has denied working with the Chinese military.

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Tech giants started as innovative commercial enterprises, but today they have become an interlinked network of independent geopolitical forces. It is not far-fetched to call the tech giants a federation of quasi governments, and they are fast growing in size and power.

They also have become a big player in Washington lobbying. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics in 2018, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, spent more than $21.7 million while Facebook spent almost $13 million. That does not include their contributions to think tanks and other Washington influencers.

This political power becomes concerning, given their scale and activity. As a Stanford University course bulletin notes: “Facebook has more users than any nation has citizens. Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks more often with Chinese President Xi Jinping than President Trump does. Google's revenues exceed the GDPs of more than half the world's countries.”

In response to the public outcry, the U.S. government has blamed the tech giants as the villains and employed regulatory measures, especially antitrust, to rein them in and stanch the hemorrhaging of personal data their business model requires. But the government suffers from insufficient technological knowledge, old mindsets, and outdated tools. In a recent exchange in a House antitrust hearing, FTC Chairman Joseph Simons pointed out that a 100-year-old agency with outdated tools is not designed to tackle current privacy challenges. He said, “if you want us to do more on the privacy front, then we need help from you ... We've done as much as we can do with the tools we have.” 

Meanwhile, tech giants have adopted self-regulation in recognition of their enlarged political role.

Yet there remain enormous concerns about the consequences of a political mandate for businesses and the implications for democracy and the public good, ones that go far beyond self-regulation and traditional regulatory tools and mechanisms.

We should remember that governments and corporations are creatures of public permission and we — the public — choose the rules that govern their behavior. Instead of remaining a bystander as technology evolves and leads us, we could take control and seize its power to re-imagine a new global architecture attuned to the challenges of the 21st century.

The first step is to replace the vicious cycle of confrontation and control with a virtuous cycle of collaboration and openness in order to embrace the distributed power dynamics of our network society, its bottom-up culture, and its decentralized technology. It is only in this context that we could shift the debate from discussion of symptoms at national levels to an open and inclusive global discussion to define tech giants’ political role and responsibility, to find a balance between their power and the public interest, and to design innovative mechanisms to democratically control them.

Gregory Treverton, who stepped down as Chair of the U.S. National Intelligence Council in 2017, is Professor of the Practice at Dornsife College, University of Southern California. He is Chair of the Board at Global TechnoPolitics Forum.

Pari Esfandiari, Ph.D., is a social entrepreneur, internet pioneer, and sustainable development executive. She serves as the CEO of Pario Consultants and President of Global TechnoPolitics Forum.