POLITICS
23/06/2018 23:00 SAST

Big Tech Companies Are So Powerful That A Nation Sent An Ambassador To Them

Introducing the Danish envoy to Silicon Valley and beyond.

In many ways, Casper Klynge is your average diplomat. The 44-year-old tech ambassador of Denmark arrived on his post with a letter from Queen Margrethe II, engages his counterparts on behalf of his government and studies the actions and culture of his host. But his traditional diplomatic routine belies Klynge’s revolutionary position: He’s the world’s only ambassador sent by a sovereign nation to establish diplomatic ties with big tech companies.

Big corporations, including the tech platforms, have sent emissaries to different countries for years. But before Klynge’s arrival in Palo Alto, California, in 2017, the reverse had never been true. There are no oil industry ambassadors. There are no hedge fund ambassadors.

Klynge’s appointment is an admission of a striking, and perhaps uncomfortable, reality. It is the latest sign that as big tech companies have grown larger without meaningful oversight from regulators or antitrust watchdogs in the United States, they’ve become regulators and policymakers by default. That ability to enter markets and change rules without any democratic discussion poses “a lot of challenges not only to states but to regional organizations like the European Union or even the United Nations,” Klynge argued.

“We are trying to retain countries in the equation,” said Klynge, who is an admitted fan of new technologies. “We are trying to retain the opportunity for countries, including Denmark, to influence the direction the world is going.”

“The reasoning behind this is a cool analysis,” Klynge added, “that, whether we like it or not, some of the big tech companies, including a lot of them in the area outside my window right now in Silicon Valley, are enormously influential.”

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The idea for nations to send diplomats to tech companies is not a new one. Ben Hammersley, the British technologist who served as his government’s emissary to London’s tech center from 2011 to 2013, called for countries to establish diplomatic ties with Facebook back in 2011. “Why should there by an ambassador to Facebook? Because that’s where the people are,” Hammersley told Slate. That was when Facebook had 500 million users. Today, it has over 2.2 billion.

It isn’t just their sheer size and scale that place tech companies alongside nation-states. They are categorically different from the industrial corporations of previous eras. They are transnational entities that deal in data and information, more than physical products. This allows them to slip the bounds of national origins much easier than any other company. And both their structure and their form differ from those of their ancestors.

Legal scholars who study them increasingly view tech platforms as systems of governance in ways that previous corporate entities were not.

Silicon Valley CEOs have admitted as much. Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said his company “is more like a government than a traditional company.” Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO and executive chairman, declared tech platforms part of the fundamental structure of society when he labeled them the “interconnected estate” in a 2010 Foreign Affairs article.

KENZABURO FUKUHARA via Getty Images
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, right, and the overseas representatives of the China Development Forum applaud as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrives for a March 21, 2016, meeting in Beijing.

This is because digital platforms operate as intermediaries between multiple parties ― publishers and readers, buyers and sellers, and users and advertisers ― which establishes them as infrastructure for markets, communication and information dissemination. As pieces of infrastructure that mediate between communities, they are able to set rules and regulations that govern the behavior of markets, publishers, people, politics and so on.

Social media platforms, for example, all set rules for users that go much further than the actual law requires of them, Tarleton Gillespie, principal researcher for Microsoft Research New England, argued in a 2016 essay, “Governance of and by Platforms.” For this reason, he writes, “The rules these platforms impose themselves probably matter more than the legal restrictions under which they function.”

“[P]latforms are unmatched by other transnational corporations in the extent of the authority they world over the day-to-day experiences and activities of their users,” Georgetown Law School professor Julie E. Cohen wrote in her article “Law for the Platform Economy.”

Let’s look at Facebook as one example.

Not only does the social media giant structure user interaction through “likes,” “shares” and groups, but it has also repeatedly demonstrated it can govern and control societies. The company has bragged about its abilityto influence election outcomes. Studies have shown it can influence voter turnout. It once secretly subjected some users to a test to see if it could change people’s emotions by controlling what they saw in their feeds. It worked. And the company proved that it could shut off news when it beta-tested a new way to organize user feeds by separating news from posts by friends in Bolivia, Cambodia, Slovakia and Sri Lanka in 2017. Instead of decluttering user feeds, the company disappeared news to the point that publishers in these countries thought they were being censored by the government. Facebook eventually reversed the feed change and apologized

Francois Lenoir / Reuters
European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager addresses a news conference in April 2015 about her antitrust investigation into Google.

But they proved a point (if not their intended point): Digital platforms govern the spaces they control. And by developing new technologies that are deployed as platforms, they can govern entirely new spaces before national governments are even aware that a new governor has emerged. This is the vaunted “disruption” that we hear so much about.

This dynamic has caused significant problems in multiple industries around the world. Protests erupted in France in response to ride-sharing companies depressing taxi profits. Governments in France, India, South Korea and elsewhere adopted quotas for local entertainment content for streaming video services like Netflix and Amazon. Those without such laws, like Australia, fear the devastation of their local entertainment industries. Online retailers and bookstores view Amazon’s entry into their countries as equivalent to a death sentence. House-sharing companies like Airbnb are increasinglybeingregulated. The European Union fined Google $2.7 billion for using its search engine to favor the company’s own products over local websites. Almost all of these companies can upend national privacy rules or establish stronger protections on their platforms.

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Klynge’s diplomatic mandate is actually global. In addition to Silicon Valley, he interacts with tech companies in China, such as Alibaba and Tencent. His job is to help Denmark maintain a dialogue with these digital platform companies so the government can stay on top of any potential shift in corporate rules and regulations.

He is also there to keep abreast of new technologies that could be deployed in his country. This part of the job involves intelligence gathering to help his government design policies before companies roll out new technologies such as advanced artificial intelligence, facial recognition tools, new health care platforms or autonomous vehicles in Denmark.

It’s also the reason why other governments have deployed emissaries or staff to Silicon Valley. Klynge may be the only officially appointed ambassador to tech companies, but he wasn’t the first staff member of a government foreign affairs department dispatched to the San Francisco Bay region.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry and Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken sent Zvika Kreiger to Silicon Valley in 2015 to act in a similar capacity as Klynge does now.

“I was the one who taught John Kerry what a blockchain was and what a bitcoin was,” Kreiger told HuffPost.

It’s not that the U.S. government had no previous relationship with Silicon Valley. The Defense Department has long been a force in the region and maintains procurement officers nearby. Same with the CIA through its incubator, In-Q-Tel. The National Security Administration maintained relationships with tech companies as part of its controversial spying and data collection program that Edward Snowden disclosed to the public in 2013. The Department of Commerce housed the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a major rule-making body for the internet until it relinquished control in 2016 to a multi-stakeholder group.

But the State Department did not have a dedicated presence in the region except through one-off meetings, often related to government take-down requests and discussions about online terrorism and international crime operations.

Kreiger built relationships with tech executives and employees, venture capitalists, engineers and university researchers. He held workshops to try to see what new ideas these people could bring to tackle policy challenges including counter-terrorism, the global movement of refugees and climate change. And he monitored emerging technologies that could impact foreign policy or alter relations between nations so that the U.S. government could know what is coming down the pike.

“There was this increasing recognition that almost every foreign policy issue we were dealing with in some way intersected with Silicon Valley, in particular, or tech more broadly,” Kreiger said. “Many of these companies out here are having more of an impact on foreign policy issues than most countries around the world.”

Kreiger now works for the World Economic Forum at its Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Silicon Valley center connects tech companies, governments and policy experts to help design and then test policies for emerging technologies, from autonomous vehicles to gene-editing technologies to blockchain uses. It’s another sign of how nation-states and international organizations are trying to grapple with the emergent power of these companies.

Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images
Former Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook headquarters in 2016 in Menlo Park, California.

Klynge doesn’t think that his unique posting is a sign of the decline of nations.

“It will come as no surprise to you that the reason why the Danish government did this is to try and keep a government in the picture,” Klynge said.

Ultimately, Klynge wants these companies to work with countries like Denmark. He sees the technologies that they develop as a boon for society, but the companies also need to take the concerns of nations seriously. Part of that is agreeing to more stringent oversight, regulation or even antitrust action.

“We are seeing the U.S. and Europe converging on the need to regulate,” Klynge said. “As the Cambridge Analytica case showed, the industry cannot self-regulate. They also need governments to help set the boundaries for consumer protection, data protection.”

He acknowledged that it won’t be easy.

But, interestingly, the focus on privacy abuses by digital platforms in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal ― the revelation that the British political consulting firm collected and maintained data on tens of millions of Facebook users ― may make it somewhat easier, Klynge argued.

“It might be a complete coincidence, but all of sudden a few meetings materialized after the Cambridge Analytica case,” he noted. “Who knows?”

Klynge thinks that more nations will recognize that they, too, need eyes and ears in Silicon Valley.

“I’m willing to bet some very nice craft beer from California with you that I won’t be the last tech representative around.”