Big Tech vs. the State: Fighting for Control of a Digital Society

5 mins read

By Emil Schröder

Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. It would not be a stretch to imagine that every single person reading this has used an application or product that is either provided or produced by one of these companies during the last 24 hours. At least one of them. But probably most of them. 

On its face, it might sound like a dubious statement – that in little over a decade, this handful of giant tech companies have become more powerful than many – if not most – of the world’s nation-states. But in an era that is increasingly defined by the digital technologies that these “Big Tech” companies own and create, this fact is becoming as indisputable as it is concerning. 

In the 21st century, we have seen a digital revolution evolve into a digital age and, by now, we are at a point where digital technologies permeate essentially every part of our daily lives through “free” digital services and applications (that we actually pay for through an endless stream of personal data which is then sold to and exploited by states and corporations alike). The cherry on top of this dystopian flavoured cake is that the market for these digital services has ended up all but completely dominated by the five aforementioned American companies.

The Big Tech companies have, in fact, started venturing beyond their native digital sphere and into new dominions. In part, through the acquisition of businesses outside of the tech industry (Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Washington Post being a particularly vexing example), but these companies have also taken on activities that are usually carried out by governments. These include diplomacy, public infrastructure, civil services, and defense. In her book The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms our World, Alexis Wichowski even goes as far as referring to the Big Tech companies as “net states” that have begun to engage in empire-building behavior. 

Their power seems to be rapidly accelerating as well. The Wall Street Journal reported that the combined market value of the five main Big Tech companies grew from $4.9 trillion in 2019 to a mind-boggling $7.5 trillionin 2020 – which is more than four times the combined GDP of all countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that same year, according to data from the World Bank. It would seem then that while the eyes of the world have been fixed on the urgent global threat that is the Covid-19 pandemic, the tech giants have managed to consolidate their economic and cultural hegemony even further.

This is something we should be very concerned about. The hegemony of Big Tech is, first of all, an indication of a global economic system that is failing to maintain the fair and open markets that it supposedly depends on. And while it might not threaten our physical health directly as in the case of Covid, it certainly bears consequences for our mental health, as revealed in the 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma and more recently in the documents leaked by whistleblower and ex-Facebook employee Frances Haugen. 

Among other questionable things, the leaks revealed that Facebook’s (or “Meta” as the company came to rebrand itself only a few weeks later) internal studies had shown that their Instagram app actively worsened body image issues among one-third of teen girl users. And among teen users who reported suicidal thoughts, it was revealed that 13 percent of British users and 6 percent of American users traced these feelings back to Instagram. Having known about these issues for years, Facebook has consistently downplayed them while doing little to correct them. 

The tech giants’ massive influence is also in conflict with fundamental democratic principles – as governments are, at least in theory, responsible to all citizens and can be removed by those citizens through democratic elections. Corporations, however, are only responsible to their shareholders at the end of the day. We must therefore expect that in the tech giants’ list of priorities, the profit motive is always going to trump any ethical considerations – although they will certainly go to great lengths to achieve the appearance of ethicality. 

Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, argues that these issues are symptomatic of the contemporary political reality of what he calls de facto digital corporate sovereignty

In an editorial to the Philosophy & Technology journal, Floridi defines digital sovereignty as control of the digital – meaning the ability to influence things (e.g. their occurrence, creation, or destruction) and their dynamics (e.g. their behavior, development, operations, or interactions). He maintains that a fight over digital sovereignty is currently ongoing between companies and states and that its outcome is going to have far-reaching consequences for the future of society. 

In theory, there should be a balance struck between tech companies and states where the former controls the nature and speed of change while the latter controls the direction of change. But Floridi argues that this balance has been skewed by a dominant narrative consistent with the logic of contemporary capitalism, wherein corporate self-regulation is seen as sufficient and advantageous over state intervention and where corporate digital power is expected to be balanced out by the market equilibrium. But instead of balance, the market delivered a de facto monopoly, where tech companies now control the nature and speed of change as well as its direction. 

Illustration: Maria Ekstrand

While promising efforts like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union and recent antitrust lawsuits against Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple by the U.S. Justice Department indicate a growing will to regulate the tech giants, it seems to remain a difficult task to do. Primarily because the dominance and vast resources of these companies make them uniquely situated to effectively evade regulation; one example being how Facebook in 2018 was able to move over 1.5 billion users from their international headquarters in Ireland to their main headquarters in California – right before the GDPR came into force in the EU. 

Even if we ignore the massive amounts of money spent by the big tech companies on lobbying policymakers (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google alone spent over $124 million on lobbying and campaign donations during the 2020 U.S. election cycle, according to a recent report from Public Citizen), the rapid pace, complexity and opacity typical for the development of digital technologies still make tech companies notoriously difficult to regulate. We are also seeing states and banking institutions becoming increasingly dependent on Big Tech’s services themselves – allowing them to join the major financial institutions in the “too big to fail” club.

Floridi believes that as our analog reality is becoming increasingly controlled and managed by digital reality, it has become critically important that the digital aspects of society are governed not by corporations but by a socio-politically accountable public sector. For the sake of democracy, coordinated cooperation on global issues, fairness, and sustainable development. 

But if corporate digital sovereignty is to end, the traditional notion of national sovereignty is not sufficient. To Floridi, the EU constitutes a promising example of how digital sovereignty is more easily exercised on the supranational level of governance. 

On their own, national sovereignties can easily be played against each other by the multinational tech giants – but as we have seen with the implementation of the comprehensive and (mostly) successful GDPR, aiming for supranational sovereignty is likely to be more feasible, if not necessary, if Big Tech is to be regulated effectively – at least outside of the United States.

However, Floridi acknowledges that even if supranational digital sovereignty is a fruitful approach for states in gaining control over the digital sphere, one critical problem remains: legitimacy. 

National sovereignty in democracies comes from popular sovereignty (i.e. the people) and when sovereignty, digital or otherwise, is transferred from the national to the supranational level it disengages the individual further from the seat of executive power. Floridi maintains that popular sovereignty can still legitimise supranational sovereignty if the populace decides to willfully relinquish control in exchange for more favourable outcomes. But the question still remains then: is this a trade-off we are actually willing to make? At this point, would supranational sovereignty even be enough to curb the power of Big Tech? And if not, what alternatives are we left with? 

If there is anything that can be said for certain, it is that the outcome in the battle over digital sovereignty will shape our future society in the most fundamental ways. 

Cover: Deepanker Verma

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