Science and technology operate with a social license. Doctors study medical ethics along with the practicalities of their profession; industries, such as pharmaceuticals and research into human embryos, are regulated.
Big tech missed the memo on that. Many in that industry have a worldview shaped by John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace,” which explicitly rejects constraints and intervention from the old, offline world. Sample quote:
On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
This is, of course, narcissistic nonsense. However much of your life is online, you still, among other things, use public roads, expect products to be safe, resort to the courts if you are mistreated, and expect your country to defend itself and you from aggression.
The arrogance is coupled with ignorance. Academic study of computer science and related subjects often seems to preclude knowledge of civics, political science, law, international relations, or philosophy. The resulting lightly-informed libertarianism is a poor basis for decisions involving world-changing technology.
An early illustration of this came in the reaction to Edward Snowden, a renegade contractor for the National Security Agency, who in 2013 leaked a huge cache of his government’s secrets and then fled to Moscow. His claims to be campaigning against abuse of power by Western spy services were widely believed, especially in the privacy-focussed world of internet activism.
British, American, and other surveillance efforts, though admittedly extensive, operate under the direction of elected politicians, with judicial scrutiny and authorization, and are subject to legislative oversight. Those safeguards may be open to improvement, but they are considerably better than the systems prevailing in Russia and China or, indeed, the ruthlessly self-interested way in which big tech companies treat their users’ data.
Ten years on, Snowden’s following has diminished. But the thinking that fostered it has just resurfaced. The tech tycoon Elon Musk owns, among other businesses, the SpaceX company that runs the Starlink satellite internet system. A new biography by Walter Isaacson reveals that Musk last year instructed engineers to switch off Starlink communications around Crimea to forestall a Ukrainian drone strike on Russian naval ships based there. Electronic navigation using Starlink—cheap, reliable, and flexible— crucially bolstered Ukraine’s early resistance to Russia’s onslaught. It is unclear if Musk switched off existing Starlink coverage or declined to extend it. But the drones washed ashore uselessly.
In his defense, the tech tycoon said that the Russian ambassador to Washington had warned him that an attack on Crimea would trigger a nuclear response. Had he allowed this, then SpaceX “would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation,” Musk said on X (formerly Twitter).
A senior Ukrainian official, Mykhailo Podolyak, responded, “By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military (!) fleet via #Starlink interference, @elonmusk allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities. As a result, civilians, children are being killed. This is the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego.”
Sometimes a mistake is much more than just a mistake. By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military (!) fleet via #Starlink interference, @elonmusk allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities. As a result, civilians, children are…— Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) September 7, 2023
That Musk was taking advice from the Russian ambassador at all is bad. That he did not—apparently— balance it with any input from US officials is worse. Adding insult to injury: he also passed to Isaacson, without permission, confidential exchanges with Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov.
Musk has got away with this for now. But he has exposed the national security vulnerabilities of geopolitical nitwittery and raised the question of why big tech should not be nationalized in a crisis. Explain that to the shareholders.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.