Modern society is complicated. Big tech companies make our lives much easier. We all carry around powerful computers in our pockets, stay connected with even distant friends on social media, and easily find answers to almost any questions we can imagine.
At the same time, these same companies are in a position to make decisions that affect which information we see, what types of content is acceptable, and even how happy we are. They collect personal data on a scale unrivaled in history.
The Information Trade is a new book that gets at the heart of these new issues we’re facing. It is a balanced account of the complexity in our modern tech-driven world, with a novel framing around how tech companies (‘net states’) have taken on some properties of governments.
I highly recommend reading this book. You’ll certainly learn from it, and much of what you’ll learn isn’t something you’ll find anywhere else. Even where you disagree, you’ll be rewarded for thinking through these challenging ideas.
The book’s author, Alexis Wichowski, agreed to answer a few questions about the content she raises in her book.
In The Information Trade you mention that large tech companies are playing critical roles in fighting cybercrime. You also indicate that the tech companies themselves are calling for regulations, and you recommend a partnership between companies and governments. If governments and companies were to partner together effectively, what do you think this might ideally look like in responding to a particular cybercrime incident?
Having worked in government for the last decade, I’ve seen the steady rise of public-private partnerships: governments formally partnering with the private sector to accomplish some policy goal. Usually these partnerships are additive – not fulfilling a critical need, like a response to a cybercrime incident, but to create bonus programming, like funding community centers or youth STEM training.
The P3 mechanism is proof that government can effectively partner with the private sector. But typically it takes a while to set up the partnership legal and financial agreements, which is why we tend to see it with non-crisis programs. I think one way governments could be proactive on cybercrime would be to set up P3 agreements with tech companies in advance of an attack (because it’s not a matter of if but when). If these agreements were already sorted out, then when crimes arise government would be able to respond quickly without the last minute scramble that we tend to see, like with the Atlanta ransomware attack in 2018.
You seem to respect much of the value technological advancements are providing, but you also point out the dangers of unintended consequences when pursuindent-quote-blocking solutions based on thinking from first principles. You demonstrate that net states are a brand new phenomenon, and help contextualize them by reference to quotes of Enlightenment philosophers and Framers of the Constitution.
In perhaps the most critical point, you focus on how tech companies aren’t responsible for protecting us like governments are, even though companies are sometimes filling this role as an online defender. Given the unprecedented nature of what we’re dealing with, do you think the solution requires a first principles perspective or will iterative refinements be sufficient?
There’s a great quote from John Gall, author of Systemantics, that comes to mind when thinking about this question: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works.”
The challenge with net states is that they’ve already evolved into incredibly complex systems, with expansive root systems in our economy, our public sector, and our private lives. Likewise, our government now reflects layer upon layer of complexity accumulated over the last two hundred years. Going back to first principles – the simple system that worked — may be preferable, but I don’t think it’s possible. While we can see the layers and study the layers — like examining geological strata on a cliff – we can’t excavate; the simple system and its subsequent complex systems are fused. To deconstruct them would undermine their stability.
That said, we can recognize and recommit ourselves to the first principles that motivated both our democracy and our technologies, which, at their core, share the same sentiment: putting power in the hands of the people. What this looks like in practice is first recognizing – formally, openly – net states as something fundamentally different from multinational corporations like Coca Cola or McDonalds, which is how government still tends to view them.
Once recognized, governments can then engage with net states on an appropriate level, acknowledging them as entities uniquely situated to protect or erode the rights of the citizen-users in their networks. It would be great to see something like the UN Convention on Human Rights for the digital age – not as something that governments or bodies like the UN alone create, but a pact between governments, international institutions, and net states as co-equals.
You give examples of large tech companies issuing official condemnations of government actions. I hadn’t considered it before, and I found your point insightful about how this is a fundamentally new type of interaction between companies and governments that’s also growing rapidly. Would you recommend governments respond to these statements? If so, how?
Building on the last response, my book makes the case that governments need to recognize net states as geopolitical entities, not just as businesses. Because they’re not. Big Tech, or net states, as I call them, are now actively working in defense, diplomacy, public infrastructure, and citizen services – and that sets them apart from other massive corporations.
For example, it would be absurd to think of Walmart forming a counterterrorism team, but somehow doesn’t seem strange that Facebook should have one (and one that’s larger than the State Department’s). It would be weird to think of Volkswagon creating diplomatic treaties, but Microsoft just opened representation offices to the United Nations and the European Union. In sum, Big Tech aren’t just big businesses – they’re political power brokers. And we need our governments to recognize them as such.
What this would look like is what we’re starting to see in pockets around the globe: governments issuing statements alongside net states (like this joint statement from the Australian Department of Home Affairs and Facebook) or responding to official statements with statements of their own. It would look like governments partnering quasi-diplomatic bodies like the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), the tech company coordinating body that has come together to battle extremism on their platforms. And it would be more treaties like the 2018 Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, which lists net states as signatories alongside nation-states.