Big tech and their leaders are a danger to democracy
Elon Musk managed to foil a strategic Ukrainian drone attack with the push of a button. It clearly shows that democracy is hanging by a thread, says Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at Leiden University and Professor of Digitisation and the Democratic Rule of Law at the Open University, Reijer Passchier.
In a new biography, Walter Isaacson writes that Musk struggles with his role in the war. 'How did I get into this war? He is portrayed asking himself in the biography that was recently published. Initially, Musk supported and sent dozens of Starlink satellites to Ukraine, in order to maintain access to the internet for the military and civilians in the occupied territories. However, his mood quickly soured after Musk failed to find backers for the satellite and space company SpaceX. 'Musk sidelined Ukraine for that reason and switched off the internet during the attack. Starlink was not meant for wars, according to Musk.' The real reason, however, is that Musk seemed to fear that a drone attack by Ukraine would be met with a nuclear response by Putin.
Absolute ruler, pulling all the strings
Reijer Passchier finds Musk's power extremely dangerous and worries about the influence of big technology companies and their leaders on democracy. In Musk's case, all power is in the hands of one person. Through Starlink, he has great influence at strategic and tactical levels in Ukraine. No one can correct the decisions he makes. The risk of arbitrariness and unwise decisions is therefore huge. Facebook and Google also have relatively few accountability mechanisms in place when it comes to the actions of their leaders. If there are checks and balances within the companies at all, they are weakened or even eliminated altogether. That makes a CEO or major shareholder a kind of absolute ruler, pulling all the strings.'
Tech companies are political rulers as well as economic powers
According to Passchier, tech companies have increasingly taken over the role of the state in recent decades. 'The power of big tech is comparable to or even greater than the power of nation states and that of the European Union. Tech companies can bind individuals and states to their rules or conditions without them having a say in this or being able to get out from under those rules. That is dangerous. Take the Starlink network, for example. If that is switched off, just because Musk wants it, Ukraine has a very big problem. Technology companies, as owners of the technology, can decide what to do without asking others for their opinion. They only invest in the things that are in their own interest. Tech companies are therefore not only economic powers, but also political rulers who, like the rulers of old, can turn into tyrants if there is insufficient control and balance.'
Passchier advocates strict intervention in Europe in order to reduce dependence on big tech. ‘Europe must ensure that it has the technology in place to reduce dependency. And we need to move towards globalisation that strengthens rather than weakens the sovereignty of states. The European Union must be strong enough to safeguard democratic and rule-of-law values on its territory. As long as big tech retains power and can drive alternatives out of the market, these will not be able to get off the ground,' according to Passchier in Dutch newspaper Reformatorisch Dagblad - Pieter Beens (€).
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