The Technopolar Moment: How Digital Powers Will Reshape the Global Order – Foreign Affairs Magazine

After rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, some of the United States’ most powerful institutions sprang into action to punish the leaders of the failed insurrection. But they weren’t the ones you might expect. Facebook and Twitter suspended the accounts of President Donald Trump for posts praising the rioters. Amazon, Apple, and Google effectively banished Parler, an alternative to Twitter that Trump’s supporters had used to encourage and coordinate the attack, by blocking its access to Web-hosting services and app stores. Major financial service apps, such as PayPal and Stripe, stopped processing payments for the Trump campaign and for accounts that had funded travel expenses to Washington, D.C., for Trump’s supporters.

The speed of these technology companies’ reactions stands in stark contrast to the feeble response from the United States’ governing institutions. Congress still has not censured Trump for his role in the storming of the Capitol. Its efforts to establish a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission failed amid Republican opposition. Law enforcement agencies have been able to arrest some individual rioters—but in many cases only by tracking clues they left on social media about their participation in the fiasco. 

States have been the primary actors in global affairs for nearly 400 years. That is starting to change, as a handful of large technology companies rival them for geopolitical influence. The aftermath of the January 6 riot serves as the latest proof that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter are no longer merely large companies; they have taken control of aspects of society, the economy, and national security that were long the exclusive preserve of the state. The same goes for Chinese technology companies, such as Alibaba, ByteDance, and Tencent. Nonstate actors are increasingly shaping geopolitics, with technology companies in the lead. And although Europe wants to play, its companies do not have the size or geopolitical influence to compete with their American and Chinese counterparts.

Most of the analysis of U.S.-Chinese technological competition, however, is stuck in a statist paradigm. It depicts technology companies as foot soldiers in a conflict between hostile countries. But technology companies are not mere tools in the hands of governments. None of their actions in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol insurrection, for instance, came at the behest of the government or law enforcement. These were private decisions made by for-profit companies exercising power over code, servers, and regulations under their control. These companies are increasingly shaping the global environment in which governments operate. They have huge influence over the technologies and services that will drive the next industrial revolution, determine how countries project economic and military power, shape the future of work, and redefine social contracts.

It is time to start thinking of the biggest technology companies as similar to states. These companies exercise a form of sovereignty over a rapidly expanding realm that extends beyond the reach of regulators: digital space. They bring resources to geopolitical competition but face constraints on their power to act. They maintain foreign relations and answer to constituencies, including shareholders, employees, users, and advertisers. 

Technology companies are shaping the global environment in which governments operate.

Political scientists rely on a wide array of terms to classify governments: there are “democracies,” “autocracies,” and “hybrid regimes,” which combine elements of both. But they have no such tools for understanding Big Tech. It’s time they started developing them, for not all technology companies operate in the same way. Even though technology companies, like countries, resist neat classifications, …….


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