When the ACLU reported last year that law enforcement teamed up with Geofeedia, a software company that uses social media data to track and monitor protesters, many were outraged. Shortly after, Facebook and Twitter cut off Geofeedia’s access to their data. But recently, Facebook went even further by updating its policy to ban developers from using users’ data for mass surveillance. These new rules have far-reaching implications not only for companies like Geofeedia, but also for others whose business models revolve around utilizing social media data for close observations.
Now imagine a scenario where your government is trying to pass a law prohibiting online surveillance by private entities — clearly, it would have looked very different. The legislative process, especially one that risks interests of dominant market players, tends to extend over long periods of time. Even when a certain law was exceptionally quick to pass, the authoritative power of such laws is commonly restricted to their local jurisdiction.
And we haven’t even started taking about enforcement — how would a government successfully administer such a rule without delegating significant enforcement power to the platform? In this sense, private “laws” are by far more effective, responsive to changes and highly enforceable.
This understanding demonstrates how the overwhelming mastery of tech companies goes far beyond their market share. Take, for example, the Partnership on AI, an industry nonprofit whose members include Microsoft, Google, IBM, Amazon, Facebook and, as of recently, Apple. Initiated for research and collaboration on advancing artificial intelligence in a responsible manner, the Partnership on AI illustrates how these tech giants are not only the suppliers of new technologies, but also the facilitators and tone-setters of the rule-making process to govern their innovations.
Some of these private laws are wide-ranging and potent like, and sometimes even more than, state laws: Gmail’s terms of service, which are binding on more than one billion users worldwide, subject more people to them than any possible U.S. law does.
With great reach and power, tech giants are playing in the big leagues. On a top 100 economies (countries and corporations) list, sorted by revenue, Apple is ranked 25th, followed by countries like Belgium, Switzerland and even Russia. Like other Western governments, Google takes part in the fight against ISIS because the company believes it has the mandate and the responsibility to think ahead and make the people of the world safer.
Just as we expect the state to be transparent about its activities, we may require some tech firms to do the same in areas with evident social impact.
Mark Zuckerberg’s public letter against isolationism has triggered speculation about his domestic political aspirations, because we usually associate this amount of power with the traditional institutionalized systems of the state. In the words of Jordan Crook, a TechCrunch editor: “No president has ever represented the interest of 2 billion people, nor has anyone ever attempted to regulate the flow of information for a group so large and diverse, and take responsibility for their experience using the service. For that, Facebook will willingly play a role.”
It comes, then, as no surprise that Denmark intends to appoint a first-of-its-kind “Digital Ambassador,” whose role will be to engage in diplomatic affairs with these companies, get a better sense of how they operate and be part of their decisions. This digital-age spin on diplomacy uses unilateral diplomatic affairs to exert influence over strategies of tech giants.
If you find this concept familiar, you are probably right. This is lobbying 101 — a designated representative safeguards the interests of the sender in a rule-making process. The lobbying of the “digital ambassador,” however, operates in reverse — it is not a private player seeking to influence governmental actors. It is, remarkably, the other way around.
Citizens of the United Republic of Big Tech may also soon be required to identify themselves as such — beginning with the introduction of a new form requesting the voluntary sharing of social media information as part of the U.S. visa application and continuing with DHS Secretary John Kelly’s proposal to make the sharing of social networking passwords mandatory. Your government-issued passport now has a companion — social media accounts are the new way to travel!
This dynamic does not necessarily ascribe sovereignty to tech giants. But placing them in an equal, and perhaps even superior, footing with sovereign states could signal the introduction of state-like duties to some of these private players.
For example, just as we expect the state to be transparent about its activities, we may require some tech firms to do the same in areas with evident social impact, such as algorithms that are prone to racial biases, driverless cars that make life-or-death decisions and Internet of Things devices that operate as labor-saving spying agents.
Recognizing that these corporations resemble public governments more than they resemble small and medium-size business entities is a step toward more accountability and better democratic oversight.
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