Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
The response was swift and broad. Within the first hours and days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and before many U.S. and allied sanctions had even been enacted, major technology companies had already sprung into action. Google and Apple halted Google Pay and Apple Pay across Russia, leaving more than 70 million Russians unable to use these services to pay for groceries, electronics, and even their daily commute. YouTube banned Russian state media-funded outlets like RT and Sputnik outside of Russia, losing them millions of views and an important propaganda tool for Moscow. Google and Meta ended digital advertising in Russia, a blunt tool that cut off funding from state-controlled Russian media but also hampered the reach of the Russian opposition. Offices of major tech companies in Russia shut down, and employees fled to other countries. Microsoft halted sales in the country, warned its security specialists were seeing increased hacking attempts from inside Russia, and declared it would continue to detect and advise the Ukrainian government about cyberattacks targeting the country.
From imposing economic sanctions, to deplatforming cultural and propaganda organs of unfriendly states, to closing down offices and precipitating a brain drain, to protecting against espionage, the actions of tech companies are becoming interwoven with government foreign policy. And Russia is not an exceptional case: In Afghanistan, China, India, Myanmar, and Brazil, tech companies are providing, denying, limiting, or otherwise adjusting their services in response to human rights concerns, fears that terrorists will abuse their products, and worries about facilitating the rise of or otherwise supporting authoritarian regimes that use their products to monitor citizens, spread propaganda, and distort discourse. These companies do all this, of course, even as they seek to expand their markets and increase the user base of their products.
In 2022, no discussion of foreign policy should occur without considering the role of major tech companies. These companies affect almost every aspect of foreign policy, ranging from diplomacy and economic growth to intelligence, and their services are profoundly shaping decision-making in the international arena. Yet democratic governments currently approach tech companies in ad hoc ways at best. The U.S. government, for example, does not coordinate its outreach to tech companies or offer consistent approaches with regard to foreign policy goals, let alone systematically coordinate any outreach with democratic allies.
As a result, authoritarian states are often left able to exploit, or at least neutralize, what tech companies bring to the table. Companies, for their parts, are reactive to international developments such as wars, coups, and repression or often ignore the more profound impacts of their policies on citizens beyond those in their largest markets. As a result, when companies do, or should, battle repressive regimes over free speech, human rights, and other goals, they are not part of a broader strategy that leverages the power of democratic governments, making it easy for dictators to triumph.
Major tech companies, as I define them, are companies that count their user base in the billions, have annual revenues comparable to the gross domestic product of entire countries, have significant market shares where they operate, and whose products and services have become essential to the citizens of multiple countries. Through subsidiary applications these transnational technology companies each touch many different areas of people’s lives in many different ways, from social media and entertainment (Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, and Apple); daily communication and utilities (WhatsApp, iMessage, Gmail, Google Search, and Microsoft Office); and cloud and server storage (Azure and Amazon Web Services).
There are a handful of tech companies operating what have become the most essential and commonly used services that shape the lives of citizens in most countries. Google, Meta, Microsoft, Amazon, Tencent, Alibaba, and ByteDance in particular play a significant role in daily life for billions of people. They also have significant market shares, making them harder to replace: Meta products occupy more than 40 percent of the worldwide market share of social media according to some estimates, and Google Search is the search engine of choice globally outside of China, where it is banned. Smaller tech companies such as Uber, Bolt, Dell, Airbnb, and Lyft are less integral to our daily lives, and have products and services that are more readily replaceable—they are therefore outside the scope of our current consideration.
Based on the size, clout, and impact of the major tech companies, their policies have profound foreign policy effects—especially with regard to the promotion (or degradation) of human rights—that are worth evaluating and commenting on irrespective of any single tech company’s country of domicile. Some observers have argued that instead of being tools of governments, major tech companies are supplanting nation-states or are at least overshadowing them. Indeed, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg once claimed, “Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company.” Tech companies, however, cannot be considered in isolation: They try to anticipate the actions of major states, and they have numerous legal, economic, and security vulnerabilities when states decide to act against them or fail to protect their interests. They shape states but are themselves bound up in the international state system—far from replacing state actors, they play on their field and are shaped by state policies, or the lack thereof.
Democratic governments are rightly focused on taming the power of these companies given the pernicious side effects of some of their services, but they should also focus on harnessing their influence to advance democratic goals and increase their chances of foreign policy success. The reality is that major tech companies’ services and actions affect diplomacy, intelligence, internal security, decision-making, national economies, and, above all, politics. In particular, they offer a tremendous form of soft power, but they need coordination with and support from democratic governments, especially when standing up to abusive authoritarian regimes that try to use their platforms to promote disinformation and suppress critics.
To do all of that, tech companies will need to be less reactive and more intentional in working with democratic governments to uphold shared values as they devise their own policies. The alternative is that companies simply are businesses that must adhere to the rules of the countries in which they operate. For those, like TikTok, that are tied to authoritarian countries such as China, or even companies like Apple that heed the Chinese government’s calls on what apps to allow and which to prohibit in their App Store, they can become tools of oppression in the worst and simply harmless and empty in many others instances, rather than living up to tech’s long-touted potential to help advance human freedom. Indeed, we have seen that when any major tech company is passive and not supported by powerful democratic governments, dictators and other abusive regimes exploit its services to commit human rights abuses and cement their hold on power.
The Global Influence of Tech Companies
Large companies with massive revenues, global reach, and policy influence are part of every recent historical period. Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell spanned the globe, working with both their home and foreign governments to extract, buy, and sell oil. J.P. Morgan & Co. underwrote bonds for American allies during World War I, and its lobbying helped keep Japan and the United Kingdom on the gold standard before World War II. The United Fruit Company convinced the U.S. government to engineer a coup in Guatemala in 1954, overthrowing the democratically elected Juan Jacobo Árbenz government, to prevent the redistribution of the company’s vast land holdings there.
Today’s major tech companies differ from their powerful predecessors. Their wealth comes from those who use their products in the form of data, advertising, and dependence on their products—not from extracting oil from the ground, growing fruit, or other investments that require considerable capital and fixed geographic locations. Indeed, the marginal cost of expansion for many tech companies is close to zero: Going from one hundred million to a billion users is not completely cost free, but many of the companies do not need to build new factories, hire vast numbers of salespeople, or otherwise greatly expand their size. If they lose access to one country’s resources or markets, it can be a blow, but it’s not crippling like the nationalization of oil assets, government default on large loans, or land redistribution was to past multinational giants. (This would not be true of some companies, of course, like Apple, that have built large, sophisticated factories in China and depend heavily on Chinese workers to build its products. Losing these physical and human resources would be a grievous blow to the company.)
The products of tech companies are also highly public, user facing, and even intimate: Many individuals use them for hours each day. In the United States, for example, teens now spend more than three hours a day on YouTube and another three on TikTok. Tech products are constantly used to interact with family, friends, employers, and the world in general. Major tech companies now provide the architecture through which our thinking is shaped and daily lives conducted (what to post, what not to post, number of followers, means of communication, number of likes, tools for work and play, how to work and connect, and so on), in a way that no previous multinationals did.
This unique and widespread influence is what allows tech companies to have such a major role in shaping the fate of foreign policies of states for both good and ill. Diplomatic recognition and intelligence are examples of two such areas where this manifests.
Tech companies do not seek to take the lead in recognizing a new government and lack the legitimacy to do so on their own, but responsibility is often thrust upon them nonetheless by the pace of world events—and their policies have profound effects on whether regimes are, in practice, accepted as part of the international system. In 2021, for instance, the Taliban’s defeat of the Ashraf Ghani government after the U.S. withdrawal of forces in Afghanistan left major tech companies with the need to decide whether or not to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Unlike many governments, tech companies did not have the luxury of waiting to see which way political winds blew or to get a sense of how the Taliban would run Afghanistan. Former Afghan government officials, for example, used email servers run by major tech companies. This led those companies to fear that biometric and payroll databases stored in these servers might be exploited by the Taliban to hunt down their enemies in the Karzai government, with life and death implications for the former officials who were unable or unwilling to leave Afghanistan.
At the same time, the decision of major tech companies to recognize the new Taliban government had real implications for the Afghan populace. Many companies hesitated to provide services that the Taliban would use. However, if tech companies had shunned the Taliban and cut ties to Afghanistan completely, this would have left Afghans unable to access services like Google Search, Twitter, Facebook, and others that were among their only connections to a world outside of the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and that have important roles in many apolitical concerns. Meta, for example, probably hurt Afghan users when in August 2021 it shut down a popular hotline to report abuse and crime that the Taliban set up on WhatsApp. The result was a difficult balancing act with some Afghans using services to implicitly mock the regime, but with the regime also keeping a wary eye on companies.
At the same time, countries have demonstrated their own recognition of the role that tech companies play by establishing direct diplomatic outreach to Silicon Valley. When Denmark established a “digital ambassador” to Silicon Valley in 2017, its foreign minister at the time, Anders Samuelsen, noted that “[c]ompanies like Google, IBM, Apple, and Microsoft are now so large that their economic strength and impact on our everyday lives exceeds that of many of the countries where we have more traditional embassies.”
Intelligence and Decision-Making
Tech companies also offer platforms that house real-time, largely public, intelligence that can reshape decision-making. Users, through their videos, eyewitness posting, comments, and other types of content, provide a massive trove of information, essentially offering near-real time intelligence on crises like the Syrian civil war, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and Russian atrocities in Ukraine. Iran’s 2010 “Green Revolution” received global attention because images of it were disseminated rapidly on social media. At the same time, with less editing and vetting of content compared with traditional news reporting, rumors, partial information, and even outright false stories related to the demonstrations disseminated quickly, and similar mixes of the real and the false show up in almost every crisis. When uprisings are in motion, both participants and their opponents disseminate shocking photos and testimonials that are then publicly debated, at times going viral, shortening government reaction times and forcing rapid decisions.
Because of the intelligence collection and dissemination facilitated by their products, tech companies can also be national security partners for governments. They often have the expertise and data that governments lack when seeking to block cyberattacks and oppose disinformation. Microsoft, not U.S. government agencies, detected and stopped a 2020 Russian hacking attack. Microsoft has also played an important role working with the U.S. and NATO governments to stop Russian cyberattacks on Ukraine and Europe after the 2022 Russian invasion.
Indeed, tech companies often have early warning systems: What happens on their platforms are harbingers of real-world harms to come, whether or not they choose to disclose their knowledge. Evidence has piled up showing the Jan. 6 Capitol riot first took shape on “Stop the Steal” Facebook groups that started popping up soon after the election was called for Joe Biden in November 2020. Facebook missed some of these early bits of evidence (as did U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies), but Facebook chose not to disclose other bits of information publicly at the time—a decision that, in fairness, might have also reflected a sense of responsibility to not bring undue attention to a fomenting insurrection lest it further fuel its flames. In other instances, tech companies have turned the act of giving notices of planned, thwarted, and successful mis/disinformation campaigns and other cybersecurity warnings into a quarterly affair, with each of Google, Meta, and Microsoft publishing periodic threat updates.
In short, tech companies play important roles in diplomacy, intelligence, and other areas that are usually presumed to be the realm of government. They do so, however, with only limited or ad hoc coordination with and guidance from governments. This is, at best, a missed opportunity for democratic governments to add powerful actors to their response and, at worst, a chance for the enemies of democracy to exploit tech platforms.
The Costs of Passivity
Given this tremendous potential influence, authoritarian regimes and their allies seek to exploit major tech companies to tilt the information playing field in favor of leaders and their allies and denigrate the opposition. If tech companies simply see themselves as run-of-the-mill businesses, believe they will have no support if they stand up for human rights, or are otherwise passive, they risk becoming foreign policy instruments in the hands of potentially dangerous regimes rather than actors that could advance, or at least not set back, human rights around the world.
Democracies with populist leaders like Narendra Modi in India have used Facebook, WhatsApp, and other platforms to spread misinformation. Users in India are flooded with anti-Muslim, pro-Modi content, including false images of violence supposedly started by Muslims: what an internal Facebook memo called an “integrity nightmare.”
Similarly, in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and other Middle Eastern governments try to shape perceptions of their own regimes and shut down rivals. In the rivalry that pitted Qatar against the UAE and Saudi Arabia, for example, both sides tried to flood the region with disinformation about their rivals. Instead of expanding people’s access to high-quality information and bringing people together, major tech companies ended up being unwitting pawns in this regional ploy to make locals less informed and more hostile to their neighbors.
Regimes also exploit tech platforms to silence dissidents. Saudi Arabia created a “troll farm,” where workers received daily lists of people to threaten and insult, and pro-government messages to augment. Saudi Arabia targeted dissidents such as Jamal Khashoggi, trying to make his online life a living hell—“the equivalent of sustained gunfire online,” as one of his friends put it.
Foreign governments seeking to suppress dissent at times go to extreme lengths to turn tech companies to their advantage. Iran tried to bribe Instagram moderators to remove accounts of critics. Saudi Arabia penetrated Twitter by getting its spies employed there to monitor regime critics.
Facebook’s role in mass killings in Myanmar is an extreme example of how governments can exploit social media companies to facilitate real-world harm—the reverse of a human rights-advancing policy. Thousands of Burmese Muslims died after the military and other government institutions used fake Facebook accounts to show false reports of Muslims raping Buddhists and other inflammatory material to whip up hatred. Around 1 million Muslims were forced to flee and 10,000 were killed in the violence. An independent investigation funded by Meta found that Facebook “has become a means for those seeking to spread hate and cause harm.” Facebook not only hosted hateful content, but its algorithms at times amplified it, according to the victims’ legal complaint. In addition, the legal complaint alleges Facebook did not take down content or accounts inciting violence or invest in moderators who spoke local languages.
Hostile governments can also hijack tech companies’ products for their own information operations. Although it was Russia’s manipulation and disinformation during the 2016 U.S. election that received the most attention, Moscow was also aggressive in sowing disinformation in Europe, using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to undermine the EU’s legitimacy and polarize societies by playing up issues such as migration and national values. Russia used social media to influence the 2016 Brexit vote, protests for independence in Catalonia in 2017, the “yellow vest” protests in France in 2018 and 2019, and the 2019 European Parliament elections. Moscow tried again, with less success, to manipulate the 2020 U.S. election and has also spread misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and the efficacy of vaccines, and has tried to stoke anti-lockdown sentiment, among many other efforts.
At times, government exploitation of platforms and pursuit of information operations is not even clandestine. RT, an official state propaganda outlet that does not have editorial independence like other nationally affiliated outlets like the BBC or NPR and broadcasts a range of content denigrating the United States, had a substantial online presence—proclaiming itself to be the most watched news channel on YouTube—before being banned by YouTube outside of Russia after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Other state media featured Holocaust deniers and other white supremacists. Although such state media has been around for decades, tech companies unwittingly took biased state media, amplified its reach, and helped it go global.
Tech companies operate in an ecosystem designed by states and their interactions. States can offer favorable regulatory and taxation environments that facilitate platform growth and innovation. As in India, they can use their coercive power to threaten a company’s employees that do not heed the government’s policies. Or, as in China, they can impose draconian controls to ensure the companies remain subordinate to the government and act as a tool of government oppression rather than as a counter to it.
Countries such as Turkey, Russia, and India have been enacting what some are calling “hostage-taking” laws. Such laws require major tech companies to have a physical presence in a country so that the government of that country can intimidate employees of those companies in order to get to a certain outcome. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian agents threatened Google and Apple employees (based at the time in Russia) to take down the Navalny app from their respective app stores. (They did.)
Tech companies, of course, are also profit driven, beholden to shareholders to maximize value where possible. They seek to expand to new markets when possible. When confronting abusive state governments, they will factor in the possible loss of the market to competitors and thus, at times, only mouth platitudes when it comes to human rights. This makes inconsistency likely: Losing Myanmar as a market due to human rights abuses is one thing, losing China for its horrific human rights record toward its Muslim population is another.
More prosaically, staff devoted to monitoring human rights and moderating content in general are cost centers—and major tech companies, as any corporation that has fiduciary duties to its stakeholders, prefer to focus personnel on revenue-generating activities. That said, growth alone has not always been the sole motivating factor for major tech companies. Google left China in 2010 after the Chinese government attempted to hack the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents and to pressure the search giant to censor its results. After the slew of scandals, from Cambridge Analytica to Russian disinformation campaigns to 2016 election revelations, Meta announced significant investments in integrity despite profit implications, admitting that it would have significant impact on profitability.
Countries’ vulnerability to the influence of tech companies varies, and both the companies and governments must recognize this. China, for example, has only three internet service providers and a strong government that is not accountable to its citizens and is accustomed to nearly unconstrained censorship, enabling the government to easily impose standards for content and monitoring. Russia, in contrast, has thousands of providers and a relatively more open information culture than China, making it far harder for the government to impose comprehensive restrictions on its people and allowing for considerable leakage of information despite restrictions. In some countries, the services offered are limited compared with what wealthier countries enjoy. In the Philippines, for instance, Facebook offers Free Basics, a program that, as its name suggests, is free to users and offers access to several applications such as news and weather. For many of its users, however, Facebook is their only means to access the internet, and the Philippine government successfully monopolized discourse and spread disinformation through Facebook.
Finally, tech companies must balance deeper ties to democratic governments with their own independence. Democratic governments can regularly overstep on civil liberties and other human rights issues, and tech companies need to maintain independent policies on data privacy and similar concerns. In addition, when taking down content or users at the behest of a government, some process transparency is vital, so users can understand why a decision was made and how it advances a broader human rights agenda.
Major events such as authoritarian takeovers, the mass stifling of freedom of speech, depriving whole populations from access to the internet, coups that install dictators in formerly thriving democracies, and even wars—such as those in Ukraine, India, Brazil, Afghanistan, and Myanmar—are unfortunately becoming more commonplace. For the United States and other democratic governments, tech companies represent a tremendous source of soft power—but democratic governments are not fully harnessing the power major tech companies can wield. This failure is particularly acute for the United States. The United States hosts the vast majority of tech giants, which are therefore subject to its laws and have leaders who are mostly U.S. citizens and sympathetic to many of its foreign policy goals.
The United States can be more effective if, in concert with its democratic allies in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world, it works to leverage the power of major tech companies. Part of this involves simply coordinating with these companies, sending high-level personnel to reach out to them so that there are off-the-shelf, coordinated playbooks when emergencies like invasions, revolutions, or massive human rights violations occur.
These playbooks will need to provide guidance that will help to answer complex questions in rapidly changing circumstances. Which candidate should major tech companies recognize in the aftermath of a disputed election? What actions should they take when an authoritarian regime takes over a previously democratic state, including to secure the data of citizens and former democratically elected officials? Do map routes need to disable live traffic data or highlight secure locations for refugees in case of war? To be sure, playbooks of this kind will never be able to provide answers for every possible eventuality or anticipate every major event to come. Nor should these playbooks be used to punish tech companies that deviate from their guidance when warranted—some flexibility is always needed in a time of a crisis and, in the end, these remain private actors. But the very act of major tech companies and democratic governments co-drafting playbooks of this kind can usher in a new era of coordination and eliminate some of the guessing that occurs with every new crisis.
In some ways, U.S. allies may prove more nettlesome than U.S.-based tech companies. The United States will need to recognize that allies may be less concerned about free speech absolutism and more concerned about privacy: Developing a degree of shared expectations for action during crises would have to address both of these areas. Allies, of course, also have different strategic interests and vulnerabilities. Waves of Ukrainian refugees, for example, will flee to neighboring states in Europe but not the United States.
To win over tech companies, the United States and its allies should support the companies in disputes with authoritarian regimes when the companies are upholding democratic values, even if the regime otherwise has a pro-U.S. foreign policy. Facebook, for example, was under tremendous pressure from the government of India to block speech critical of the Modi government, such as the hashtag #resignModi. Twitter at times stood up to the Modi government when it tried to block critical journalists and activists, and is even taking the government to court. The Indian government, however, had on its side the ability to block access to its market, laws that give it considerable power to curtail criticism, and the threat of arresting local company employees. During this confrontation, the U.S. government and its allies did not support the companies or significantly push back against India.
Brazil today stands as a prime example of how thinking in terms of a foreign policy beyond narrow business interests might lead tech companies to reshape their approaches. Operating in Brazil, the world’s 12th largest economy, has real business and revenue implications for major tech companies. Yet Brazil’s current president argued that he will not peacefully transition power if there is “voter fraud,” which means tech companies are faced with a risk that their products will be abused to support authoritarianism. Thought through from a purely business perspective, these tech companies should first and foremost prioritize their revenue from operating in Brazil and thereby allow their tools to continue to be used by the current Brazilian government, even if leaders mount a coup to stay in power or otherwise subvert the democratic process.
By taking a wider and long-term perspective on their business interests, tech companies might reach a different conclusion—or at least recognize there are business trade-offs. Working with dictators can hurt their reputation, strain their relationships with regulators in the EU and the United States, or make them divisive entities in Brazilian politics.
Examined through the perspective of aligning with democratic governments’ foreign policies, however, the calculus for major tech companies changes. Instead of thinking of revenue alone, they will need to account for the very real prospect of their products being exploited by authoritarians to keep up misinformation and widen its reach. This might mean tech companies taking an active role in suppressing disinformation propagated by the Brazilian government, taking false Bolsonaro content down, and even deplatforming him as a measure of last resort—all while risking a continued Bolsonaro rule that may lead to their being banned from the country.
Because of the risk that tech companies that stand up for human rights and electoral integrity might be banned or otherwise severely penalized in Brazil, the U.S. government and its democratic allies need to play a role. Governments should highlight to both the Brazilian government and the people of Brazil that suppressing tech companies and their services would have consequences for broader bilateral relations. They should also map out potential economic sanctions and trade penalties that would result.
Democratic governments in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world are in a tricky position, needing to both regulate tech companies and leverage them. Privacy concerns and the companies’ monopolistic abuses deserve legislative attention, yet even as lawmakers and regulators advance reforms, the governments must partner with tech companies on a daily basis. Governments, in other words, must be partners, coordinators, advisers, boosters, and constrainers, with different parts of the U.S. government playing different, but coordinated, roles.
For their parts, major tech companies, like major powers, will be more effective when they are part of coalitions. If they act alone, autocratic states will pit them against each other. They should band together on these policy decisions so as to multiply their impact: A government can live without Twitter, say, but it is far harder to deprive citizens of Twitter, Google Search, YouTube, Facebook, and other services that have become crucial for day-to-day life. And if the U.S. and other democratic governments back up tech companies, their positions become stronger, due both to their unity and to diplomatic top cover.
Working with democratic governments also offers a degree of legitimacy to the actions of tech companies. Critics rightly point out that a small group of unelected business executives—mostly male billionaires—have tremendous power over the lives and politics of billions of people. Democratic governments, for all their problems, enjoy a degree of legitimacy that companies cannot match.
Ultimately, the most important question is whether democratic governments are able to provide the right incentives so that tech companies become effective foreign policy partners. The decisions that tech companies are being forced to grapple with, from what government to recognize after a contested election, to how to protect freedom of speech, to whether to deplatform a politician, are all ones they would rather not have to make on their own. Through coordination with and co-drafting playbooks for these crises with democratic governments, led by the United States, tech companies can be assured of more certainty in decision-making (and some cover if they get it wrong). And governments can start to truly harness tech’s long-touted potential to promote democracy and further human rights.