Imposing national will through digital networks – either by expanding them or censoring them – may not always be the intention. Yet with such a tool of influence in hand, nations will be drawn to use it.
As I wrote for the ANU: “Policymakers may struggle to understand the risks and exposures inherent in various networks. The viral nature of technology promotion shortens decision-making time for government.”
That comes to mind with the news that Zoom, the popular web conference platform, blocked the accounts of people organizing a Tiananmen Square anniversary event, including people outside of China.
According to Zoom, the PRC government warned them that the activity was illegal in China, and the company acted once it saw that the planned meetings involved PRC-citizens.
This is a policy that Apple has used in the past with regards to China. The lack of corporate resistance to authoritarian influence is a vulnerability for democracies, giving hardline regimes veto power of activities in networks whether happening in their native country or in the regime’s jurisdiction.
The digital technology companies are active in international markets, but, as commercial entities, don’t have the competency or will to make determinations about real political consequences, and to stick with them. They certainly don’t have the incentive to lock horns with regulators in markets. History hasn’t asked these companies to consider political rights as a matter of doing business, either.
If you don’t think Western companies can’t be leaned on to uphold authoritarian values for fear of offending a customer, just consider that Zoom’s statement on the Tiananmen Square anniversary incident doesn’t mention the words “Tiananmen Square.”
While the misalignment between networks and local laws is stark between Asia and the US, it’s going on in every jurisdiction, including between companies from the US and open democracies, like Australia.
Those companies, however, function more like nation-states than enterprises existing under the rules of a government.