Big Tech as an Actor of Global Security and Geopolitical Conflicts

2-3 mai 2024
Université Paris-Panthéon-Assas, Centre Panthéon (75005), Salle des conseils - Paris (France)

From the war in Ukraine to geopolitical rivalries between China and the USA, and terrorism-related threats, the digital giants colloquially known as “Big Tech” corporations are increasingly involved in issues of national and international security. Most often, their involvement stems from their services and platforms serving as new theaters of conflict in cyberspace (Singer & Brooking, 2018), as with Russian or Chinese information operations on social media during elections (Jeangène Vilmer et al., 2018; Charon & Jeangène Vilmer, 2021; Marangé & Quessard 2021); or when Donald Trump, then President of the United States, took to Twitter to threaten North Korea with nuclear war (Schwartz, 2022). In such cases, the role of Big Tech companies in conflict is an infrastructural, near invisible one, as the services they provide and govern are used as intermediaries for conflict (Musiani et al. 2016). In other cases, these firms are themselves the objects of conflict, as with the multiple bans on Huawei's 5G (Statista, 2020) and on the social network TikTok owned by Chinese conglomerate ByteDance (Chan, 2023); or Russia's designation of Meta as a "terrorist" organization in the context of the Ukraine war (Euronews, 2022). In International Relations scholarship, it is commonly assumed that private corporations act as “ambassadors” of their country of origin and that their technical innovations are prolongations of national power on the world stage (Carr, 2016; Strange, 1996; Keohane & Nye, 1998). It therefore comes as no surprise that conflict situations involving Big Tech are becoming more common with the internationalization of Chinese internet giants, signaling the emergence of non-American Big Tech. Meanwhile, tech giants' political power is increasingly recognized by the traditional actors of international affairs, with multiple states naming “tech ambassadors”. Finally, Big Tech companies are increasingly becoming actors of global security in their own right, by “co-producing” security alongside public authorities (Bellanova & de Goede, 2022) and even in some cases launching their own initiatives, such as Microsoft's Digital Geneva Convention, or YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft's launch of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) in 2017. While it is not unprecedented for private companies to be involved in security issues, policymaking and enforcement (Abrahamsen & Leander, 2016), and especially so in cyberspace (Dunn Cavelty, 2016), the variety and importance of current ties between digital giants, security and conflict seems to indicate a general trend towards the privatization of security through these (quasi-) global players. Due to their scale and economic clout, Big Tech companies profit from a particular form of “entrepreneurial private authority” (Srivastava, 2021) or “platform power” (Culpepper & Thelen, 2020). In practice, this notably means a privileged access to public authorities and international fora, and the ability to impose standards ("best practices", definitions, processes), as well as to form coalitions to defend their interests. As its central position in the digital industry and economy is being translated into a centrality in security-related policy areas, Big Tech can leverage its integration within security governance networks and geopolitical rivalries to fend off threats of antitrust action (Woll, 2019), thereby consolidating its market power and becoming further integrated into high politics, raising multiple concerns in terms of legitimacy, accountability, and sovereignty (Monsees et al., 2023). Such developments invite us to look beyond the instrumental study of Big Tech platforms, services and technologies, and to turn our attention to the agency of these actors in global security and geopolitical conflicts. With this in mind, the aim of this conference is to initiate a holistic discussion on the diversity of the security roles played by these companies, how they “learn to see the world through a security lens” (de Goede, 2018:26) and their relationship to traditional security networks.
Discipline scientifique :  Sciences de l'Homme et Société

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