After the Pandemic: Democracy in an Age of Big Tech

The Covid pandemic has been characterised by one prominent analyst as an ideological one; one which is illustrative of how liberal democracies and autocratic states deal with such a grave and invisible threat. One that requires massive mobilisation of state resources and also control of its citizenry.  It seems that autocratic states have shown themselves to be more effective in doing this, whilst democracies are struggling to control the outbreak. The latter is wracked with self-doubt, and there is a temptation to look at China or Russia’s draconian measures as an example of effective government.

Arguably, as one civil servant told me, western liberal democracy being undermined by the sheer autocratic finesse of a technically efficient China is not the real concern.  Effective governance has got nothing to do with governance models, democracy, dictatorship or anything else. South Korea, a democracy, was super effective in shutting down the spread of the virus for example. The worry is with the increasing role of big tech in combatting this crisis and the undue influence big tech firms may exercise on the government after the pandemic. Now, if you are authoritarian like China that of course is not an issue: you can control the tech firms, but if you are a democracy that presents a unique challenge. Traditionally, democracies have managed to subdue big corporations capturing the state. For instance, British Parliament managed to subdue the East India Company. In William Dalrymple’s “The Anarchy”, the historian shows how a bunch of motley privateers in the Caribbean managed to set up a trading company that through a combination of trade, guile and force captured the biggest empire in the world in the 17th century, the Mogul empire. Whilst it was an extra-ordinary feat by a trading company, ultimately Parliament took it over. The state administration knew how to run the operation because it was based on diplomacy, local knowledge, business, warfare and so forth, the state could do those things. The East India company’s work, for good or ill, could be continued under parliamentary sovereignty.

But what do you do when a multinational tech firm like Google refuses to comply with your country’s regulations? The tech giant is too big for the government to just allow it too fail, and cannot simply be taken over or nationalised like they did with the East India Company or the banks following the 2008 crash.  Simply put, Google is too specialised for a government to take over. This means that big tech firms, Western or otherwise, could hold democracies to hostage. It seems now in the age of big tech with companies like Apple, Amazon and Google, the power balance between company and country has changed. Not only that; it can use well resourced legal teams to take on the government. 

In fairness, this is something that Western democracies have been cognisant of even before the pandemic. One need only look at how the UK’s relationship with its intelligence partners were questioned when it was considering the Chinese firm Huawei to roll out its 5G network. We may have come to a point where democracies are being dominated by multinationals; big pharmaceuticals, banks and military industrial complexes. But it has over time developed a tradition that has actively challenged it. There are activists, thinkers, judges etc who warn against the role of big business on government. In other words there seems to be enough conoscenza or political awareness, whether that be from Marxists to the likes of Naomi Klein or Chomsky or otherwise, to understand what the corporations can do.  When the Gupta brothers tried to take over the South African government, it still made headlines abroad and shook the foundations of South African democracy. When the CIA decided to pay Amazon Cloud 600 million to build a computing cloud, and Jeff Bezos continued touting for more government work, it wasn’t just IBM that was annoyed but alarm bells rang out within the fourth estate. Vanity Fair asked: “Has Bezos become more powerful in D.C than Trump?” Whilst arguably tech companies have been sneaking into bed with the state for a long time, enough fuss was being made about their influence.  Facebook could not avoid the backlash following the Cambridge Analytica scandal from not only governments but also the fourth estate.

Arguably with the Corona pandemic all has been forgotten. This is the first time tech companies are being embraced and given a blank cheque- no questions asked. They appear to be responsible citizens. Facebook is informing you about Covid, whilst Google, not unlike Putin one should add, will track people’s movement using google maps during the Corona pandemic to see if we are observing the lockdown with the benevolent mission to help public health chiefs.  

It could be argued that Western democracies are wholly inadequate to deal with the logistical operation of managing a population lockdown. They cannot simply order a China style lockdown and so turn to tech companies to solve their problems. This is not for sinister reasons, but simply because tech firms have the necessary technology and expertise to deliver. And so liberal democracies all over the world are teaming up with the likes of Google, Amazon, Microsoft not to mention the multitude of start up tech firms, to deal with the crisis. Ethics are being put on the back burner: the NHS for instance, teams up with Palantir, a firm whose ethics have been questioned when they teamed up with the Trump administration to track undocumented migrants.

Whilst the public might be disturbed by Derbyshire police force using drones to spy on walkers in the peak district, and apart from an odd judge or two, there has been little if any institutional back lash. It is for our own good after all. In fact, the use of tech firms have been celebrated as a sign of national technological prowess. In fact, the use of tech firms are celebrated. “Drone flies to the rescue in first coronavirus food and drugs delivery” chimes The Times. And it seems they are given institutional support. OFCOM has ruled that our data can be tracked by the government to stop the prevent of the virus.  Moreover, the government have positively encouraged the use of online services to get what you want due to social distancing measures.  And whilst it might not be a reality yet, it is becoming increasingly clear that tech firms are set up to segue into becoming an essential element of the State.

Let us assume that the tech firms are being public-spirited and following strong ethical guidelines, but what happens after the pandemic, when they become so ingrained in the fabric of government that they become indispensable? What happens when they don’t listen? Hints of this has already occurred: Apple for instance refused FBI investigators from gaining access to the phone of the San Bernardino attackers on the basis of breaching ‘civil liberties’. But what if Apple simply refused because their shareholders objected, what then?

In 1956, Phillip K. Dick wrote a short story called “Minority Report”, and warned against a world where crimes can be predicted.  Fast forward to 2020: Robert Muggah writes glowingly of this ‘Dickish’ vision in “How Smart Tech Helps Cities Fight Terrorism and Crime”. Real time data or ‘agile security’ can be used to “detect crime before it happens”; crime-mapping platforms, gunshot-detection systems and a whole array of tools like smart street lighting can make cities of the future safer. Muggah continues that public authorities are already “reading license plates, running facial recognition software, mapping crime and terrorist networks and detecting suspicious anomalies. Some of these technologies are even processing data within the devices themselves, to speed up crime-fighting and terrorist prevention capabilities.”  But Muggah also raises the ethical issues involved in using such technology. It needs checks and balances and a transparent framework to operate within. But to do that requires a totally different governmental architecture that, for now at least, seems beyond the capability of your average MP. 

Perhaps more importantly, what happens for instance, when Derbyshire police instead of merely using the information to shame the walkers on the Peak District, decide to penalise them by reducing their credit, benefit, food or future promotions? What if those technologies target specific ‘undesirable’ communities? What would an Assad do if he had that sort of technology and what is China doing with that sort of technology on the Uighurs of Xinjiang now? What happens when Google Health or Palantir become part of the NHS infrastructure or  Zoom conferencing become intrinsic to the UK government with its China-based engineering team? Can Western liberal democracies remain independent and a master of its own destiny? What happens when even the mundane is informed by big tech firms? These days even premiership teams rely on EA sports FIFA football game for data on a player.  Perhaps big tech is already here to stay, and the pandemic is a catalyst.

After the pandemic, Western democracies will be faced with an immense challenge.  We may shop differently, give away our data with more ease, accept unquestioningly the firms’ inherent benevolence just like we accepted state expansion into our private lives in the beginning of the last century. Following the passing of the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, which regulated everything from buying alcohol to flying kites, we never got rid of the passports or repealed the licensing laws after the war. These are a permanent fixture of our lives. Similarly, consider the sweeping laws introduced after 9/11; the security architecture that was created cannot be dismantled, only scaled back. The incursion into the realm of civil liberties has more or less been accepted: think airport security to privacy laws to drone strikes.  These laws were pushed through under the ominous spectre of the twin towers. We accepted everything unquestioningly. Those who shouted about its injustices were seen as pariahs and odd balls.  Now, under the threat of a new national emergency, we are being asked to accept not only restrictions on our freedoms but also big tech as a fixture in our daily lives in order to save ourselves and our loved ones. Simply watching Netflix on your sofa could save lives. But if we are not careful by the end of the pandemic, the balance between government and the big tech firms may tilt towards the latter and they may capture the State.  On the other hand, if we start creating the structures to regulate them, give them and indeed us, a ‘social contract’ if you will, then government will remain in the hands of the people as opposed to the nerdy CEO with his unbuttoned shirt and his shareholders. 

Notes, Links and Further Reading

Twitter thread by Shadi Hamid:

“Coronavirus will define us, and of course the cliché is true: politics, and our lives, won’t the same, and they probably shouldn’t be. And one of those ways has to do with a broader ideological battle—between democracies and autocracies”

“China’s message is clear: The regime there is saying to the world, without shame or apology, that brutal technocracy is the way to deal with existential threats, in this case a virus”

Every day, I see Americans and citizens of Western democracies doubting themselves, losing faith in their own governments but also their own systems. They point to China, and they say, ‘look how they’ve so quickly contained the virus, if only we could do the same’

Surveillance Capitalism is also interesting:  and

Big Tech being responsible citizens:

Samsung and Facebook donates to NHS:

Giving up your data for Covid:

Tech firms ask for more help in UK due to Corona:

Making deals with billionaires will have a price:

Data and human rights compromises:

The quiet expansion of Duplex in UK, Canada and Australia

Zoom hacked during home school in Singapore:

State backed hackers taking advantage of pandemic: /

Huawei warns UK on 5G-

Flaws in contact tracing in the real world great little blog Light Blue Touch Paper by Cambridge academics

Contact tracing app developed by NHSX

On State surveillance and the pandemic:

Microsoft the responsible citizen:

NHS staff use App to request PPE:

Can a Wearable Detect Covid-19 Before Symptoms Appear?

A clinical team used MIT CSAIL’s AI to remotely monitor a COVID-19 patient:

Huawei 5G back door explained:

Microsoft President Brad Smith: Democracy Is At Stake. Regulate Big Tech:

TikTok donates £5 million to Royal College of Nursing:

A new way of socialising- even the most human of things like Birthdays are done on line:

Norway’s largest mobile operator, Telenor, is collaborating with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health to help them track the spread of the coronavirus.

Parliament goes virtual:

Government support to help Start-up tech firms:

Facebook asks you about your health:

Coronavirus: Health leaders credentials dumped on line:

Youtube bans ‘medically unsubstantiated’ content: