Past Is Prologue, Again

This pattern, and variations of it, have played out in public view across the planet. Apple, Google (Alphabet), Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and a variety of others (eg Alibaba, Twitter) have each, individually or in batches, been the recipient of this treatment. Each has been in the firing line for alleged malfeasance, including but not limited to anticompetitive behavior (acquisitions like WhatsApp), price fixing (Books), access fees and payment systems (App Store), price gouging (online stores, App Store), punitive practices toward suppliers, retailers (Amazon), and substandard treatment of employees (all). We are seeing governments, whether the executive, judicial or legislative branches, in realtime target Big Tech’s revenue stream, notably but not exclusively Apple’s, over anticompetitive practices (eg the App Store or acquisitions) or for violating sovereign law (the storage of data from Chinese citizens on non-Chinese servers), with threats of fiscal retaliation, including the possible suspension of the right to conduct business in specific settings (Russia and requiring apps from Russian developers). 

This is not to say that there are not legitimate reasons for branches of the government to access public data in the private sector. Indeed, there are. Importantly, there should be transparent protocols for doing so, apart from legal due process and the serving of warrants. The issue is rather the means to getting there, and the resultant balance of power in that relationship, itself a test of liberal democracy and representative government that acts on behalf of the people in their best interests. Autocratic and authoritarian settings require less justification, and will tend to appeal to grievance, nationalism and patriotism, with little explanation otherwise.

Importantly, this is also not to argue that there is some vast, global conspiracy amongst nation states to access personal data. There is not, nor is one required. Indeed, the interests of many of these nations are diametrically opposed, and in some cases, have created active hostilities. Rather, data are essential to civilization and the governments that run it. Never in history have these governments been faced with entities that have amassed more and better quality of realtime data on people. This creates a de facto rival power by virtue of such ownership within that government’s dominion. This is unprecedented. The fact that competitive and hostile rivals might seize these data to advantage transforms this into an existential threat, and an imperative to act. No conspiracy necessary. 

The question hangs as to how best to resolve this, ensure protection, and find an appropriate balance. This will differ by government, setting and the host country for each Big Tech company. 

Riposte or Feint

In response, Big Tech are not without defenses and options. In some cases, companies have withdrawn from certain settings, or are expanding their options in other countries. In other cases, they have simply contested these moves in courts of law. 

More recently, we are seeing, notably from Apple, strategic threat mitigation. The use, by law enforcement and legislators, of child pornography and sexual predation as a wedge to create encryption backdoors to communication software, prompting Apple’s response with their proposed CSAM technology, that specifically addressed this vulnerability, but without offering a decryption key, is a case in point. 

Make no mistake, this is a contest in which stillness and inaction are a not an option; as these contestants are not evenly matched. Governments make the rules, decide fairness, penalties and punishment. Big Tech can only win, or at least survive intact, by being smart, strategic and nimble, which may require moving faster than the user base can follow; another form of risk.

The rise of the tech giants, their global reach and acquisition of massive and unique data sets, creates a novel and irresistible resource for both domestic and foreign governments, whether allied, competitive or hostile. We are not at equipoise on the domain or rules of access to these data. Governments appear to be responding by applying financial pressure on Big Tech, combined with threats of new legislation, in order to compel compliance. Tech companies continue to counter and parry with limited concessions and solutions to government-stated problems. Most appear to be preserving their business models. Apple is unique, in that the company advertises its protection of user privacy, and has fought for this in court. As a result, user expectations of Apple are higher than for many other companies. 

Conclusion

The argument is that many recent legal skirmishes over anticompetitiveness reflect a broader objective of controlled access to user data. And while there are legitimate issues raised by governments against all of these companies, the user community needs to be vigilant against being played against their better interests. 

In the end, this is not about a utopian ideal, but about achieving and preserving an optimal balance between societal safety and security versus individual liberty and privacy. This requires, and can only be sustained by an alert, educated and engaged electorate. You. At the purse, and at the ballot. 

Importantly, that balance will remain dynamic and shift at the speed of innovation and product release. Some continuing self-education will be necessary.

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gGrant

Least conspiracy minded person I know, Alex Lindsay (with a security clearance that gets him into the Oval Office and the Pope’s office), so you know he’s a member of the club… stated outright that all the focus on big tech is after one thing – access to the phone. Personally, I think this ignores the other fact of political life, hitting big tech up for bigger campaign donations. Arguably the biggest businesses on the planet, politicians will be looking to big tech more and more for ‘support’ into the future. For the right donation, we’ll let your company write… Read more »