Big Tech, Nationalism and Globalisation

There’s an important observation in Rana Foroohar’s The Case Against Big Tech concerning how American tech firms are invoking national interest to avoid the threat of regulation. From pg 10:

All of which makes it particularly rich that some Big Tech firms have responded to the growing public concern about privacy and anticompetitive business practices by playing to a long-standing American fear: It’s us versus China. Companies like Google and Facebook are increasingly trying to portray themselves to regulators and politicians as national champions, fighting to preserve America’s first-place standing in a video-game-like, winner-take-all battle for the future against the evil Middle Kingdom. In the spring of 2018, when Mark Zuckerberg was grilled in front of the U.S. Senate about his company’s involvement in election manipulation, an Associated Press reporter managed to take a picture of Zuckerberg’s notes, which revealed that if he was asked about Facebook’s monopoly power, he had planned to answer that if the company were broken up, America would be at a competitive disadvantage against Chinese tech giants. As congressional staffers and politicos in Washington have told me, Google has played the national security card, too, quietly using the “U.S. versus China” argument to push back against proposed antitrust action. Yet Google also has a research facility in Beijing, and has contemplated starting a censored version of its search engine to comply with local rules (something that has been put “on hold,” as one PR representative put it to me, following an internal revolt among its own engineers, as well as political pushback from the White House and Congress).

Given the objective fault lines which exist in Sino-American relations (the rising hegemonic and its diminishing predecessor, rapidly falling Chinese FDI in America, competition over South-East Asia as a sphere of influence, enormous if diminishing quantity of American debt owned by China etc) it is extremely worrying how the strategic conduct of Big Tech firms links nationalism in foreign affairs to resistance to domestic reform. There is a real race here given what we can expect to be the non-linear character of advances in machine learning but one which intersects with a diverse range of tensions to be found in China and America. The political economy of Big Tech is becoming extraordinarily significant and needs to be at the heart of our analysis of what constitutes the global in our present conjuncture.

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