Why tech companies can no longer ignore their role in shaping politics and society

Image courtesy Olga Solovyeva

Amidst the rising influence of technology in global politics, particularly in authoritarian regimes, the imperative to acknowledge the political accountability of tech corporations has become increasingly apparent. In recent years, the ramifications of disregarding ethical practices underscore the urgent need for tech companies to prioritize responsible conduct. The manipulation of information online, traffic rerouting, restricting access to the internet, and operating surveillance are some examples of how states can misuse technology. While technology was once expected to become a symbol of resistance and liberation, illiberal regimes now use it to produce various forms of digital unfreedom that extend into material reality. But how do we ensure that Big Tech contributes to democratic practices rather than political oppression?

Why do tech companies have political responsibility?

In an innovation driven sector like technology, legislation cannot keep pace with new developments. Often, neither users nor makers consider the negative consequences of a new technology until they have experienced them, and the industry is left struggling with the ramifications of harm and, as a consequence, its own expanding responsibilities.

In recent years, Big Tech companies have made headlines more often for political events than industry ones. First, the revelations of Cambridge Analytica’s user data harvesting and consequent interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections brought public attention to the issues of uncontrolled data collection. However, even since the issues have been flagged up, social networking sites fail to remove mis/disinformation or take action against incidents of violence. Further public discussion questioned social media providers for neglecting the impact of algorithmic feeds on teenagers and young adults, contributing to the mental health epidemic marching through the world. Tech companies are directly involved in international politics, as in Myanmar, where Facebook became the synonym for the internet and eventually a key platform to fuel hatred and incite genocide. There is also the case of Pegasus, an elaborate surveillance software developed by the Israel-based NSO Group, which was used to spy on political activists worldwide.

Digital activists from Global Voices Advox report on the growing use of digital technology for advancing authoritarian regimes worldwide, focusing, among others, on issues such as surveillance, mis/disinformation and access to the internet in different contexts. Autocrats use the whole scale of digital technologies available. In Russia, where the interest of the state lies in keeping opposition views from the information environment, there is a strong emphasis on disinformation and censorship. Tanzania and Sudan are known for internet shutdowns, while in Turkey and Morocco, cases of public digital surveillance have become more common.

At the same time, the tech sector does not necessarily play on the dark side only. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Elon Musk's SpaceX continued to support Starlink and provide internet access in Ukraine after the Russian invasion disrupted services. And yet, his recent purchase of Twitter brought multiple controversies, further empowering the attention economy of social media, which leads to fragmentation, polarisation and the decline of the public sphere. It’s impossible to separate tech companies from politics, and their role tends to cause controversy.

Good apple, bad apple

If you’re reading this text from your MacBook or iPhone, you probably have recognized the difference between living in a new information space with much less targeted advertising. In February 2022, Apple introduced its new privacy features allowing users to enable or block personal data tracing from the apps installed on the company’s devices, an innovation with significant political, social and economic consequences.

It’s crucial to understand the business decision that underpins the ongoing debate on personal data ethics and regulation. Protecting Apple users’ personal data means they will not be targeted with personally crafted advertising, and their data will not be used to predict consumer behaviour, which enables users’ right to privacy — one of the central categories of online service providers’ moral responsibilities and, essentially, a human right. This guarantee of the right attracts consumers to Apple products.

At the same time, this architectural decision caused significant distress to the market, as the stock prices of Meta and other social media companies plunged that day. Introducing an opt-out particularly for personal data collection means shrinking their potential advertising revenues as less data becomes available to develop personalized ads.

Apple made a policy-level decision, a milestone in the discussion on issues of user privacy regulation. Effectively, it is a subject of government concern on the intersection of information and business ethics, law and policy. This case illustrates the power of one company, which can be not just a game changer in the conversation on tech regulation but a shock for the industry, pushing other businesses to shift their business models and challenge the dynamics of Big Tech.

What is this decision for Apple? An enactment of an ethical stand signalling its political responsibility? An act of an excellent corporate citizen innovating to enable its customers’ rights for privacy? Or is it a marketing move to boost the sale of Apple products through engaging in a non-market activity? Regardless of the motivation, we have witnessed a tech company making a political change on an international level, since Apple products are in demand and sold worldwide.

At the same time, the company engages in other activities that may be seen as controversial. Along with other Big Tech companies, Apple increased its lobbying spending in 2022 as businesses face increased pressure from lawmakers raising antitrust concerns to curb the power of tech giants. Meanwhile, stepping outside the liberal democratic political climate, Apple faces decisions that challenge its political stand. In 2021 the company confirmed storing all personal data of Chinese users inside China-based data centres. China is known for using surveillance as a tool for political prosecution. Even though Apple claimed to maintain a high level of security, journalist sources report that the company handed over the keys to the government. The same year, Apple removed a smart voting app, one of the tools developed by the opposition in Russia to outplay electoral fraud. In both cases, the company's decision-making had severe and direct political consequences, just like the decision to block personal data tracing on its devices. The only difference was the kind of pressure put on a company by the political system it was operating in.

Where does the political responsibility of Big Tech end?

In 2022 the world saw the global expansion of authoritarian rule, affecting developing states and established democracies. According to the 2022 Freedom House report, only 20 percent of the earth's population live in a free country, while the remaining 80 percent are equally split between a partially free and not free world. The world is getting more authoritarian, and the political regime of a liberal democracy today is the exception rather than the rule.

Different autocracies pose challenging obstacles to tech companies, which remain the key producers of innovative technology. The role of the state defines the potential expectations of business, and their relationship patterns. In autocracies, political participation and public deliberation face repression through state authorities, and business is shaped by a political economy with the elements of state intervention. The state prevails, and it has more direct control over the company when needed, and the interference in economic life is ordinary and unpredictable. Autocrats are famous for censorship, propaganda, and interventions in electoral systems, all of which are delivered by technology provided by business.

One of the most common examples could be the situation in which a business organization has to obey the law of an authoritarian state to maintain political legitimacy, while the law itself may undermine the moral legitimacy of the company. The case of Apple in China is an example of this. However, it can have different consequences for companies in other countries. For instance, Verizon (the subsidiary that bought out Yahoo! in 2017) was sued for handing data to the Chinese government that led to political prosecution and the torture of dissidents. In authoritarian regimes, legislation is often designed to set out the specific requirements and processes for government agencies to obtain access to personal data, including surveillance purposes. Even though data handovers upon the request, e.g., the subpoena, are common for democratic regimes as well, the difference is how such data is further used and whether there are grounds for balancing it out with other institutional procedures.

Elaborating on the political responsibility of Big Tech

As the intersection of technology and politics continues to expand, grappling with the political implications of new creations becomes imperative for tech innovators. They must take proactive steps to develop robust political responsibility strategies while navigating authoritarian and other ethically fraught environments. Transparency is one way to meet these goals.

The practice of environmental social and governance (ESG) reporting and disclosure on ESG issues is an excellent example of how mandated transparency has led to accountability, and one that can be adapted to technological innovation. Openly revealing who has bought a certain technology will limit the ability of authoritarian governments to abuse it, for example. Additionally, integrating political responsibility as a part of responsible investment portfolios could represent a meaningful step forward to starting an open dialogue about tech, politics and society. This could be done by disclosing on direct political engagement of companies and adding additional transparency about contexts in which business operates.

Yet, such openness would be even more problematic — and potentially impossible — for tech companies that have been developed within the borders and hence the jurisdiction of authoritarian regimes. One of the most illustrative examples is the case of Yandex, a multinational company headquartered in Russia. The company has grown into a major tech player, often referred to as the “Russian Google.” Despite making an occasional compromise with the political system, the company kept the reputation of the most liberal company in the country while showing steady business growth.

However, when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Yandex faced significant pressure, legislative restrictions, international sanctions and criticism from the public. From the first weeks of the war, YandexNews, daily visited by 40 million people, has been indexing only stories from state-owned media, amplifying the narratives of the “special operation.” Abiding by the law became equivalent to contributing to univocal media coverage dominated by the Russian state.

The war became the most significant trigger that affected the company, as the share price of this prominent business lost over 75 percent of its value. Many company employees, including top management, resigned or left the country in protest of the war led by Russia. Personal sanctions were applied to the company’s CEO and founder. Under pressure, the company sold their media assets to a holding loyal to the state. In December, the company's founder left Yandex Russia but remained the key shareholder.

Scenarios like these establish a controversial ground for businesses that must come to terms with an authoritarian state's rules to keep their business going. Albert Hirshman’s “Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States” suggests a framework of three strategies for responding to the perceived decrease in performance of an organization or a state. Using it as a guide to an organizational strategy, a tech company facing authoritarianism could leave, protest or comply.  However, as the suppression of public dissent usually characterizes authoritarianism, realistically, only two strategies are left: to stay or to go.

Nevertheless, both strategies bring further ethical concerns. With a lot said about the downsides of collaborating with autocrats, how ethical is it towards the employees and customers for a business to leave the declining state? Moreover, the business remains a profit-generating enterprise first of all, and very few countries in the world would make a market for a product so the company’s leadership could keep to the standard of political responsibility. We can’t all live in Norway, after all.

As the influence of tech companies continues to grow, it falls to civil society, journalists, tech users, and watchdog organisations to keep these firms accountable. Demanding transparency and collaborating to come up with new fair policies that could support tech companies in tough contexts could be one way forward. Meanwhile, it is important to educate the public and create incentives for consuming tech other than instant gratification. By working together, these stakeholders can start shaping a more ethical tech landscape, where common good carries more weight than corporate interest.

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