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The Year Ahead 2020

Big Tech’s Will to Power

As recently as 20 years ago, America’s technology companies had little interaction with the federal government beyond paying taxes. Now, Big Tech – with Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft leading the way – has put itself in a position to replace democratic decision-making itself.

STANFORD – Although we have only just begun to understand the harms caused by Internet platforms to public health, privacy, and competition, we will soon be confronting an even more fundamental threat from Big Tech. At a time when the institutions of liberal democracy are already weak, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft are mounting a challenge to democratically elected governments by offering their own services as an alternative.

This represents a significant change from the past. As recently as 20 years ago, America’s technology companies had little interaction with the federal government beyond paying taxes. Engineers created products that empowered customers, and the government cheered them on.

But after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the country’s attitude toward surveillance changed. The US intelligence community collaborated with leading digital platforms – starting with Google – to gather massive stores of personal data that might be used to prevent future attacks. Moreover, beginning in 2008, Google, Facebook, and others became indispensable tools for politicians. The tech industry’s cozy relationship with President Barack Obama’s administration protected it from scrutiny while it perfected what Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School calls “surveillance capitalism.”

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