It’s not uncommon to see Big Tech companies compared to nation states. The market caps of Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft are individually worth more than the GDPs of most countries. Combined, US tech stocks are worth more than the entire European market. Tech giants dominate internet infrastructure, e-commerce, online communications, and hoard vast reserves of our most intimate personal data. They are increasingly entangled with governments and militaries, and even take on the functions of the state.
This transformation of Big Tech into an immensely influential supranational bloc, has not gone unnoticed by countries around the world. Recognising this solidifying locus of power, a rash of governments have assigned diplomats to work exclusively with Silicon Valley. These ‘tech ambassadors’ are charged with representing the country’s interests and liaising with tech companies.
The role of tech ambassadors
“In the last decade, we’ve seen how nation states are not the only ones defining and shaping… how our society develops and evolves and functions,” says Denmark’s tech ambassador, Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen. “The role of tech ambassador is fundamentally to represent Danish values – the opinions and perspectives of Danish citizens and government – to the global tech industry.”
The role of tech ambassador is fundamentally to represent Danish values to the global tech industry. Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen, Denmark’s ambassador
Larsen says that technology development, the tech industry “and in particular a pretty small group of companies” have become “absolutely critical when it comes to defining our financial markets, our economics, our labour markets, our future opportunities, our ability to grow and prosper”.
Denmark appointed the world’s first tech ambassador in 2017, with Larsen taking over the position in October 2020. The UK recently followed suit, appointing former Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur and investor Joe White to the combined position of British consul-general in San Francisco and technology envoy. Austria, as part of its Open Austria programme that seeks to connect the country to Silicon Valley, appointed its first tech ambassador last year.
Other countries have appointed tech ambassadors by another name. France, for example, has an ambassador for digital affairs; Estonia an ambassador for cybersecurity; while the Netherlands has a counselor for innovation, technology and science. Associate professor of diplomatic studies at Oxford University Corneliu Bjola says that by his count, there are more than 20 tech ambassadors around the world.
“You’re starting to see that people in government are recognising that technology is not just about the IT structure, and it’s not just about what citizens use – that Big Tech is also a global geopolitical force to be reckoned with,” says Alexis Wichowski, adjunct associate professor in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Part of this is about acknowledging where power lies. “I think if you are seeing these sorts of roles purely through the prism of old-style diplomacy, you’re completely missing a trick,” says Priya Guha, former British consul-general in San Francisco and current partner at Merian Ventures. She says that in San Francisco and other areas, it’s important to engage with the regional players that exert influence over issues that the UK cares about. “You have to treat them with that same level of focus, of nuance, of understanding, as you would if you were trying to engage with a government entity.”
“[Diplomacy] has always been about putting people into areas of transformation,” said Casper Klynge, former tech ambassador to Denmark, speaking at an event organised by Columbia University. “In Europe, you typically put [diplomats] in capitals of countries that you were wary of,” or where you were concerned about the prospect of armed conflict. Klynge now works as vice-president of European Government Affairs at Microsoft.
Technology is today one of the foremost arenas where geopolitical tensions play out. China and the US are currently engaged in what has been termed a ‘tech cold war’ that threatens to drag the rest of the world into one or other power’s technological ‘camps’. The country that leads the way on emerging technologies such as AI, 5G, the internet of things and biotechnologies is widely recognised to grasp the reins of the next era.
US President Joe Biden has appointed a White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific region, as well as other Asia experts to his admin. The emphasis on the Pacific region may in part be down to technology. The US and other countries have set up a partnership for AI in the military. Biden has also called for a Summit of Democracies, where creating a coalition for emerging technologies including 5G and AI is one of the topics on the agenda. Meanwhile, the European Commission has suggested a global tech collaboration between the US and the EU.
But while part of the tech ambassador role is attuned to geopolitical manoeuvring, the position is considered useful for implementing tech policy too. Spearheaded by the EU, nascent efforts to rein-in Big Tech have been under way for several years, to little avail. “Technology companies hold a lot of power over this conversation; my role is to try and fix that,” says Larsen. “We need a better understanding on both sides; we cannot regulate alone without interacting with industry… with any other industry we insist on multi-stakeholder collaboration.”
“Most countries are working with Big Tech through fines and regulations, and restrictions,” says Wichowski. “And that’s not to say that those are incorrect, but there’s no vehicle for most governments to interact with Big Tech on a more positive or collaborative note.”
Most countries are working with Big Tech through fines and regulations… but there’s no vehicle for most governments to interact with Big Tech on a more positive or collaborative note. Alexis Wichowski, Columbia University
How receptive are tech companies likely to be to these advances? Klynge complained to the press that while in office, he had struggled to get an audience with Silicon Valley’s top executives.
But the looming threat of tech regulation could help countries secure a seat at the table. “The tech industry is realising that this is no longer a question of whether there’s going to be regulation, but a matter of how,” says Larsen. She says that during the months she’s been in her new role, she’s experienced a very positive response from Silicon Valley and has met with senior people across the major tech companies.
A growing appetite for exchange is reflected on the corporate side too, with the creation of public policy and government affairs positions at tech companies – often populated by people who used to work in government. Klynge’s new role is to “ensure that Microsoft is constructively contributing to the efforts of European policymakers” while the bloc tackles “the most urgent and complex tech issues of our time”, Microsoft wrote in a blog post. Bjola says that these positions represent incipient forms of diplomatic representation for these companies.
The idea that countries, especially small ones, can influence tech giants might prove optimistic. So far, the tech giants have proved difficult to meaningfully regulate. EU legislation such as GDPR that was introduced to rein in tech giants ended up hurting SMEs more; Amazon recently announced that it will avoid the UK’s digital tax by passing the cost onto its third-party sellers; and Big Tech still pays a fraction of the global taxes it’s considered to owe. Wichowski argues that Big Tech has effectively ‘regulation-proofed’ its business by integrating itself into the fabric of the internet.
Major tech companies are also considered monopolies that leverage their power in one area to gain a foothold in another. As Wichowski writes in the Washington Post, “A US antitrust suit against Google won’t work, because Google and its Big Tech brethren operate above the level of any single nation state… Chasing down one service… after it’s had 22 years to amass our data is like stepping on shadows.”
Guha says that appointing ambassadors to an industry or cohort of companies isn’t “necessarily a completely novel way of working as a diplomat”. She says that it’s reminiscent of the 1920s and ’30s, when there was a similar range of dominant industrial players that were very influential on policy.
But choosing to engage with tech companies through diplomatic means tacitly embraces a laissez-faire ideology, which critics warn leads to monopolies. During the golden age of antitrust action between the 1940s and ’70s, competition was viewed as a bulwark against fascism – which oversaw a fusion of state and corporate power. Since then, antitrust fell out of vogue and the anti-regulatory ideals of the Chicago Business School took over. Today, legal scholars such as Timothy Wu, have warned that the current concentration of economic power (which includes Big Tech) again poses a direct threat to democracy.
This is particularly concerning given the intermeshing of Big Tech and government is already underway. Companies such as Amazon and Google have accepted contracts with the US government and military to supply critical infrastructure and other services. Social media companies already comply with law enforcement information requests, becoming de facto elements of the state apparatus.
Big Tech and government… are two things from a citizen perspective that you don’t want to see working too closely together. Corneliu Bjola, University of Oxford
Bjola says that this could be problematic: “Big Tech and government… are two things from a citizen perspective that you don’t want to see working too closely together – especially if the legal framework is not very well defined.” He points out there is a fear that this kind of alignment could give rise to digital authoritarianism.
“There’s this very deep citizen rights and responsibilities implication that comes along with the tech sector that you don’t see from companies like McDonald’s or Walmart, for instance,” Wichowski adds.
In Europe and the US, prominent voices advocate for the dissolution of Big Tech companies. But while antitrust action is finally ramping up in the US, and new Big Tech-taming legislation is on its way in Europe, the prospect of the tech companies being forcibly broken up still seems a distant possibility. Appointing tech ambassadors to the industry might seem obvious given its influence, but there is cause to be wary too.