In early March, Mark Zuckerberg wrote a Facebook post – of course – to announce a big change coming to the social network he founded. The company, he said, will now focus on private messaging, unifying its disparate messaging services. It was a remarkable statement from a company notorious for pushing the idea of sharing – and for committing no small number of privacy snafus in the name of that mission.
Yet, Mr. Zuckerberg’s post also contained an unnerving truth. Here was a chief executive with an unprecedented amount of power talking about essential changes to the messaging infrastructure for a couple billion of people. Such is the scale of the digital revolution: Decisions made by an alarmingly small number of people on the U.S. West Coast have global implications.
Companies such as Google, Facebook, and Apple have userbases in the billions. Not only is this historically unprecedented, it’s also more people than live in any single country. This – along with Big Tech’s sheer scale, with profits in the billions and with margins dwarfing similarly sized companies – gives them incredible power, which has collided with politics as we understand it, and democratic life itself. That has been further exacerbated by its impetuous “break things” culture: It has expanded its lobbying efforts to influence and guide policy, to the extent that some critics feel they’ve exceeded the definition of traditional lobbying, and now have political jurisdictions at their mercy.
Consider the past 12 months alone. Amazon’s highly public, reality-show-style process to select a new site for a second headquarters prompted cities across North America to prostrate themselves at its feet. Mayors humiliated themselves with Pollyanna boasts about their cities’ benefits, as they cajoled Amazon with big tax breaks and incentives. When the company finally chose to build the headquarters in Virginia and Queens, N.Y., the latter deal faced an uprising from the neighbourhood, and Amazon simply took its ball and left, leaving the city and state’s politicians bereft. This is part of a trend: As reported in The New York Times, Amazon has applied its huge weight to jurisdictions across the United States, getting its way by threatening to pull up stakes and take jobs with them. South Carolina, Texas and even Seattle have eventually caved to Amazon’s demands to avoid sales taxes in exchange for opening or maintaining facilities in those areas.
If Amazon wields jobs as a kind of cudgel, Facebook’s influence is less concrete. Its role as a kind of communication infrastructure means it is less directly responsible for the economic welfare of a given place than part of its social health. The manner in which the company plays home to discourse of all sorts makes it an arena for connection, but also a place for political subterfuge, anti-vaccine or conspiracy theories, and bigotry of all shades. The social network has played a role in violence in Myanmar, and in communal tensions in India through its WhatsApp messaging service. But while a 2018 post-Cambridge Analytica reckoning made the spectre of social-media regulation and privacy enforcement a real threat, The Guardian revealed the company has lobbied extensively (and effectively) to pre-empt this, using data centres as a lure in places such as Malaysia and Canada. Mr. Zuckerberg may be earnest about his desire for a new approach for Facebook, but the reported actions of his company should make us skeptical about its motives.
A concentration of powerful companies is nothing new. The idea of petro-states is firmly in our political-science lexicon, and multinational companies in industries such as aerospace, pharma and telecom have long lobbied governments for sweetheart deals. But with Big Tech, the scale is far vaster, and the sociological impacts far deeper. So is it time to worry about not just a so-called technostate, but a tech supra-state, where companies supersede the state altogether?
Tech is not merely a business sector, but an increasingly powerful player in the way in which states are run, organized and experienced by citizens. Beyond Facebook and Amazon, there is of course Alphabet, the parent company of Google, which is currently embroiled in a bitter public-relations war with activists who oppose a project by its subsidiary Sidewalk Labs to redevelop Toronto’s Quayside neighbourhood. Sidewalk Labs is being accused not simply of using the project as a data-mining operation, but also as a Trojan horse to have private companies become part and parcel of modern urban development, sharing a percentage of taxes and other revenue as it also profits from the running of a city.
We are faced with a remarkable situation in which a conglomeration of private companies both own a significant part of modern social infrastructure, but are also lobbying to extend that power into other spheres: urbanism, education, governance and more. Tech has already placed new demands on state infrastructure itself. At its peak, cryptocurrency consumed an enormous amount of power, almost as much as the entire country of Ireland. Autonomous cars will force cities to adapt their design, while the advent of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, gene editing and other technologies all pose enormous challenges – and each will come with its own army of well-funded lobbyists, pockets full of Silicon Valley cash and with the best interests of societies not necessarily at the forefront of their minds.
In one way, of course, these changes are just part of how technology and societies typically adapt through what people feel, in the moment, are extraordinary times. Electricity, for example, went from a revolutionary private concern in which individual factories produced their own power, to more centralized, nationalized systems.
But if these are indeed extraordinary times, then they at least require similarly expansive, novel thinking. One such shift: It is necessary to understand tech’s influence as far more sociocultural than it is material. The shift to digital has produced an array of new forms of culture, not just new forms of technology. The production of a public self through social networking, or persistent forms of connection, or new modes or formats of media – these are all akin to the changes wrought by the printing press, an invention that influenced far more than merely the distribution of information.
The question that lies ahead of us now: Since these changes are occurring, for whom and to whose benefit will they be directed? Modernity has, since its inception, been a back-and-forth between the needs of capital and those of the state. It was the amassing of vast amounts of wealth through colonialism that first posed a threat to Europe’s monarchical tradition, leading to the rise of mercantilism and then capitalism. In subsequent centuries, similar patterns emerged: When power invariably consolidated around large, private stores of wealth or power, whether the Rockefellers or big telecom, the state would react in kind through regulation or nationalization.
But as we go through one of those pendulum swings again, a weakened state threatens the typical process. Successive U.S. governments have been reluctant to regulate digital companies for fear of stifling innovation, and both the Trump administration and FCC chair Ajit Pai are strident free-market boosters. That attitude is historical, part of a post-Reaganite shift toward neoliberalism that sees markets as both self-correcting and inherently good.
But a laissez-faire reliance on the wisdom of markets seems, in this instance, naive. Facebook’s plan to sell itself as a privacy-focused company, for example, was potentially an act of subterfuge. In adding encrypted, private messaging to its repertoire, while also merging its WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger platforms, it has potentially headed off regulators who might seek to break the company apart or encourage citizens to consider some public or state-led role in digital social infrastructure. It would be a classic Facebook move: publicly state that it is doing something in the interest of its users, while carefully cementing its position as the world’s most dominant social platform.
This is what should give us the most cause for concern: that this is not an issue related to a single country or a single company, but the globe itself. How individual states such as Canada deal with multinational companies that not only operate internationally but, in their very functioning, challenge the notion of physical borders, is a test that the current regulatory framework is ill-equipped to address. And as these companies poke and prod at the limits of the nation-state, with their truly global and active constituency of users, these companies will only be emboldened to push those limits further – and potentially disrupt governance altogether.
In the face of such a historic situation, a first step might be to view each of tech’s moves with deep skepticism. A useful second one might be to fight back.
Fortunately, signs of revolt are appearing. This week, U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren put forth a plan for breaking up the tech giants. It is far from certain to succeed, but the mere fact that we must rely on a U.S. senator for salvation should force a recognition of what it is at stake. In the back and forth between the needs of companies and society, it’s time to push back and defend our own interests. The pendulum, after all, doesn’t swing on its own.