When much of the world’s business elite gathered in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos in late January 2019, the assembled CEOs, hedge fund managers, and other business titans pontificated on many issues, except one: the extent to which they are wielding powers once reserved for governments. At a time when the capacity of governments to deliver for their constituents is shrinking, large corporations’ political clout is expanding, sometimes dramatically so, as in the case of Big Tech companies like Facebook and Google.
In the face of today’s most urgent challenges – including cybersecurity, climate change, geopolitical turmoil, and migration – nation-states seem incapable of marshalling both the will and the resources to mount an adequate response. Will big business be the solution, or is it part of the problem?
Consider the issue of election security. In response to the growing threat of foreign interference, Google recently unveiled a plan to prevent online meddling with the upcoming European Parliament elections. To compensate for the absence of an EU framework governing the process, the company announced that it was ‘creating a pan-European policy’ of its own. Likewise, Facebook and Twitter used last November’s midterm elections in the United States to test new technologies for detecting and removing fake news and misinformation from their platforms.
In each case, the tech giants were responding to public demands. Within the confines of their increasingly influential platforms, leading social-media companies are now expected to act as all three branches of government. In addition to setting their own guidelines for behaviour online, they also oversee the enforcement of those rules and impose sentences – temporary suspensions, permanent bans, and so forth – on users who are found to be in violation.
These are hardly the only examples of multinational corporations designing and enforcing their own public policies. Microsoft recently pledged USD 500 million to expand the availability of affordable housing in Seattle, which would generally be the job of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and other public agencies, both state and federal. And at the Paris Peace Forum last November, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and other tech giants joined 50 governments in signing a new multilateral cybersecurity agreement. Notably absent were the governments of the US, Russia, and China.