Biden’s Campaign for “Digital Democracy” Is Really a Giveaway to Big Tech
The United States claims it benevolently promotes democracy over authoritarianism through its international technology policies. In reality, America forces poor countries to let US-based Big Tech companies steal their data.
American democracy promotion has been a calamity, to put it lightly. This century alone, the United States has helped violently overthrow the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Haiti, Bolivia, and Honduras, leaving millions dead and tens of millions more displaced, all in the name of democracy. The irony is potent: at home, the United States responded to 2020’s mass protests against police brutality with yet more police brutality, and 2021 began with an attempted coup galvanized by the outgoing president and his political party.
Despite the wreckage and the hypocrisy, democracy promotion remains a centerpiece of US foreign policy, and is mobilized as a justification for American goals, whatever they may be. With respect to technology, US policymakers have called for the promotion of “digital democracy” and opposition to “digital authoritarianism” emanating from China. The narrative of democracy triumphing over high-tech dictatorship obscures America’s real goal, which is to prevent Beijing from displacing Washington as the leader in global surveillance and the owner of much of the world’s internet infrastructure. US technology strategy has the same underlying motivation as many other policies that ostensibly aim to promote democracy: opening up markets so that American firms can sell their products abroad. What the tech industry and policymakers have dubbed “digital democracy” is just a recapitulation of US imperialism with respect to the pursuit of global technology dominance.
Promoting digital democracy is dangerous for three reasons. First, the United States and other electoral democracies engage in indiscriminate mass surveillance around the world. Second, the US government foists technology policies on poor countries that largely benefit Big Tech. Third, the narrative that innovative American companies are more righteous than their illiberal Chinese counterparts manufactures consent for US-backed surveillance.
Voting for the Panopticon
“Digital democracy” is by nature defined against digital authoritarianism. The Brookings Institution — which receives funding from Google, Facebook, and Amazon — defines digital authoritarianism as “the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations.” This raises the question: What about when democracies use the same tactics?
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation — a think tank backed by Apple, Microsoft, and Uber — answers that democracies, unlike authoritarian states, would never abuse technology: “Authoritarian nations will use technology for authoritarian purposes. Democratic nations will use them for legitimate and civil-liberty-protecting purposes.”
This kind of black-and-white thinking creates a self-reinforcing logic: when democratic states and their tech companies engage in surveillance, we can assume that it is for the cause of freedom, but when authoritarian states do it, it is for the purpose of social control. Was the NSA listening in on Angela Merkel’s phone calls a triumph of representative government? Are YouTube’s efforts to deplatform Palestinian activists justified by the will of the majority? Is Facebook facilitating genocide in Myanmar and Ethiopia “what democracy looks like”? Apparently so.
In truth, spying on people and stealing their data is abhorrent regardless of the nature of the government performing or sanctioning that surveillance. Regrettably, surveillance capitalism has become a driving force in the global economy. Across the world’s democracies, republics, oligarchies, monarchies, theocracies, and dictatorships, accumulating data for profit has become the modus operandi of many companies.
US policymakers portray China’s technology strategy as uniquely dangerous and despotic, but what they truly fear is that China threatens to displace the United States as the global leader in advanced technologies. Take digital infrastructure as an example. Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s national security advisor, has claimed that China is pursuing “global domination” by building out internet infrastructure in Eurasia and Africa through its Belt and Road Initiative. However, the United States is a far more dominant player in global technology infrastructure. The US government and American firms own three thousand satellites, 60 percent of the global total, including the Global Positioning System (GPS), a constellation of thirty satellites that provides location services to billions of devices. US companies design three-quarters of all semiconductors, the microelectronics necessary for smartphones and computers. And Google’s Android operating system powers 72 percent of the world’s mobile phones — Apple’s iOS accounts for the remaining 28 percent — allowing Google to leach personal information from 2.5 billion people round-the-clock. Nanjira Sambuli, one of East Africa’s leading technology policy analysts and a Ford Global Fellow, said in an interview with Jacobin, “For the average user, the interaction they have with Chinese tech is phones. But the phones run Android.”
When they bother to acknowledge the reality of US global tech hegemony at all, believers in American exceptionalism contend that even if US-based companies monopolize essential infrastructure and engage in mass surveillance, their actions are qualitatively different from those of Chinese firms, as they are less integrated with the state. In reality, US tech companies are intimately connected with the government. Big Tech receives billions of dollars in corporate welfare each year in the form of subsidies and tax breaks. The Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security pay billions to tech companies in exchange for cloud computing services, secure databases, and augmented reality systems. Besides monetary support, the revolving door between Big Tech and the federal government is notorious, with tech-backed nominees populating key regulatory positions.
Munira Lokhandwala, director of tech and training at the anti-corruption group Little Sis, told Jacobin, “Virtually every US government department has multiple multiyear contracts with Big Tech.” According to Lokhandwala, “Some agencies are wholly reliant on tech companies. As a government employee, there’s often no way to do your work without outsourcing some of it to one of the five major tech companies.”
Chinese firms are rightly criticized for exporting surveillance technology abroad to autocratic governments such as Uganda, Zambia, and Kazakhstan. Similarly, US companies should be condemned for selling facial recognition technology to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, helping these totalitarian states crack down on dissidents. In 2020, Belarus used equipment provided by the American company Sandvine to block millions of websites and censor news and social media in the midst of mass protests following Alexander Lukashenko’s sham reelection. After several outlets reported its involvement, Sandvine quietly ended its partnership with the Belarusian government, though it continued similar partnerships in Jordan and Russia. Francisco Partners, which owns Sandvine, was later “crowned 2020’s top money maker” among tech-focused private equity firms.
China’s domestic surveillance capabilities, which outstrip those of the United States, also deserve strong condemnation. In Xinjiang, for example, data collection has been used to scale up genocide. Beijing forcibly collects the DNA of millions of Uyghurs and uses facial recognition to alert police if people leave their villages, and tens of thousands of checkpoints throughout Xinjiang force inhabitants to record their location. And China’s surveillance apparatus is not limited to Xinjiang. China has 500 million surveillance cameras, more than half of the world’s total, which feed facial recognition algorithms with valuable data. Meanwhile, Beijing’s “Great Firewall” blocks internet traffic that the Chinese government wants to censor from entering the country.
The US currently lacks many of the features of Chinese-style surveillance, but not because of a fundamental and unshakeable commitment to privacy, as some commentators suggest. We can’t easily deduce a state’s comfort with surveillance based on whether it holds elections: more than half of liberal democracies use artificial intelligence systems to surveil their populations, compared to only 40 percent of autocracies.
As Ulises Mejias and Nick Couldry write in their pathbreaking book The Costs of Connection, surveillance programs in China
are problematic not so much because they are uniquely antidemocratic (the West has its own crises of civil rights) but because they perfectly illustrate where datafication might eventually be headed everywhere. In the name of safety and security, other governments will find it easier to claim they must not be left at a disadvantage and will escalate the initiatives already in place.
Mejias asked Jacobin, “How can ‘digital democracy’ be so different from ‘digital authoritarianism’ if they run practically on the same technologies and infrastructures? We should be concerned about how easy it would be, technologically, to switch from the former to the latter.”
In the United States, algorithmic decision making is already used to incarcerate people, deny them housing, and determine if they receive medical care. The US government’s surveillance capabilities are only growing. The NSA’s surveillance programs are entirely intact nine years after Edward Snowden exposed them, allowing the US government to covertly collect the rest of the world’s internet traffic, read people’s emails, and hack into their devices. In addition, key provisions of the Patriot Act — which empowers the government to spy on Americans and people outside the United States with no oversight — remain in effect.
US tech companies devour as much sensitive data as possible. The vast majority of all cross-border data traffic passes through the United States, with 70 percent of global internet traffic passing through northern Virginia, the headquarters of many US intelligence agencies. Microsoft, Amazon, and Google own more than half of the world’s major data centers, and along with Meta, they own the rights to two-thirds of the capacity of the world’s undersea fiber-optic cables, which form the backbone of the internet. As Google’s cofounder Larry Page predicted twenty years ago, “Everything you’ve ever heard or seen or experienced will become searchable. Your whole life will be searchable.”
Government of the People, by the Algorithms, for the Corporations
America’s technology policy priorities abroad encompass three key objectives: banning data localization, weakening data protection laws, and eliminating digital services taxes. This deregulatory agenda would eliminate nontariff barriers employed by poor countries to develop their local tech ecosystems and keep predatory multinationals at bay. The US government and Big Tech have relentlessly pressured countries to abstain from adopting such measures — purportedly in the interest of democracy.
Data localization regulations require that data generated in a country is stored or processed in that country. The Center for Strategic and International Studies — which Facebook funds to work on data localization and digital authoritarianism — argues that “data localization can be used as a tool of digital authoritarianism to limit democracy and human rights. . . . This is intended to facilitate these governments’ ability to carry out ‘a crackdown on free expression, privacy, and a range of human rights.’” This is undoubtedly true in many cases. China’s 2017 cybersecurity law requires that foreign firms not only store data within China but also provide technical support to Chinese security services conducting investigations.
But data localization can also have significant economic benefits for low-income countries. Requirements to store data where it is collected force multinationals to invest in local data centers and data processors, often creating more competition among local companies that store data. Local data storage also increases the speed of digital services since the information that fuels applications does not have to be fetched from halfway across the world. Moreover, it lowers costs because data does not have to pass through expensive international transit points. This is, in part, why the European Union has adopted de facto data localization requirements.
In 2020, the total capacity of data centers in sub-Saharan Africa was just one-quarter that of the city of London. To rectify this gap, Africa’s largest economies, such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Algeria, and Rwanda, have adopted data localization rules, while countries like Ghana are in the process of implementing similar measures. These laws have fueled a gold rush on the continent, bringing in billions of dollars of investment and doubling local data center capacity in the last five years. In Kenya and Nigeria, the price of data has fallen by 90 percent, due in large part to localization.
Data localization can also deliver myriad noneconomic benefits. Storing data locally makes it more difficult for foreign governments to surveil a country’s citizens because they must do so from a significantly greater distance. In the case of the United States, “It is much cheaper for the FBI to issue a national security letter compelling a US-based data host to provide access to their data centres than it is for the NSA to gain access to data stores outside of the USA.”
Furthermore, data that is stored locally can be audited by local regulators, enabling them to carry out their democratically mandated functions. Nick Dearden, the director of Global Justice Now, told Jacobin that measures banning data localization are “going to make it impossible for regulators to properly control what Big Tech is doing and constrain these companies’ activities in the public interest.”
Free-market ideologues have dismissed these justifications for data localization measures, paternalistically claiming that poor countries are “shooting themselves in the foot” by pursuing “digital mercantilism.” The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has even gone so far as to argue that the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, OECD, and US Agency for International Development “all need to cut off foreign aid” to countries with data localization laws.
In fairness, there are obvious drawbacks to data localization. Some foreign firms will be less likely to invest in low-income countries where paying for local data storage increases the cost of doing business. Harsh national data localization requirements may decrease data flows even with neighboring states that share common interests (a pan-African approach to cross-border data flows would help solve this issue). And without legal requirements that mandate joint ventures with local firms, foreign firms may gain control of local data centers, as the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei did in one case by building a data center in Senegal that was originally funded by a Chinese loan.
China’s push for “cyber sovereignty” through data localization is by no means innocent. Chinese firms are hungrily eyeing the data of Africa’s growing population and the possibility of using African countries as a sandbox to test new surveillance tools. Additionally, some African leaders are indeed intent on using data localization to increase online censorship. But America’s push to liberalize cross-border data flows is not innocent either. America’s “more democratic” alternative to allowing countries to manage their own data is to coerce them into allowing US multinationals to host their citizens’ personal data in the United States or wherever shareholders choose. “If you’re trying to develop your own economic development strategy, that’s just a complete nightmare,” Dearden told Jacobin.
America’s coercive power was evidenced by the adoption of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which banned signatories from requiring data localization at the behest of the Obama administration. While every trade agreement the United States has negotiated in the wake of TPP prohibits data localization, only one of every twelve trade agreements negotiated between countries in the Global South have any restrictions on data localization.
According to a study by the African Digital Rights Network, the major threat to digital human rights in many African countries is surveillance, not data localization. For instance, 70 percent of environmental justice organizations across the Global South have been targets of digital surveillance. Encouraging the adoption of strong privacy and surveillance oversight laws is a better way to fight antidemocratic impulses than making countries grant Big Tech unlimited leeway with their data.
Freedom to Assemble Our Computer Overlords
The next pillar of America’s “pro-democracy” digital strategy is to weaken other countries’ data protection and privacy laws. The dominant view in some circles of “the Blob” is that data protection can exacerbate authoritarianism because dictators use such laws to ensure that the “government is the main arbiter and moderator of data.” The US International Trade Commission — a federal agency tasked with adjudicating international trade disputes — staunchly opposes strong data protection laws, suggesting they tend “to cause substantial damage to consumer trust in the Internet; to erode business opportunities for data-related innovations, for example, in the areas of analytics and Big Data; and to raise costs for businesses complying with multiple divergent standards.”
US technology giants wholeheartedly agree that private companies, not governments, should be the main arbiters and moderators of data. Big Tech companies have accordingly become the leading opponents of robust data protection and privacy laws across the world. Leaked Facebook documents revealed that it was able block privacy legislation in Malaysia by promising the government it would increase investment. In Kenya, Google and IBM are at the forefront of undercutting Kenya’s data protection law by lobbying for looser restrictions on the transfer of personal data. In Europe, where the EU is considering harsher penalties for algorithmic harm, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are the continent’s largest lobbyists.
Companies have brazenly violated the law to establish monopolies overseas. In 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission fined Microsoft $25 million for bribing the governments of Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and Turkey to use Microsoft’s services. A Microsoft whistleblower subsequently revealed in March 2022 that the company pays $200 million annually in bribes and kickbacks to secure favorable government contracts in the Middle East and North Africa, including in Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Qatar. Although the terms of Microsoft’s government contracts are not public, it is likely that Microsoft’s contracts contain few privacy provisions as they “cement its monopoly on the continent,” in the whistleblower’s words.
Sambuli, the Ford Global Fellow, told Jacobin, “What’s happening behind the scenes is what we don’t know. We don’t know what those companies have negotiated. We don’t know which parts of us have been sold.”
Despite Big Tech’s protestations, data protection and privacy laws are usually motivated by their clear-cut benefits, not tyrannical ploys for government supervision. Privacy is a fundamental human right. Half of the world’s poorest countries have no data protection or privacy legislation, leaving their citizens at risk of having their personal information stolen or sold to third parties. Before the adoption of South Africa’s Protection of Personal Information Act in 2020, the personal information of 30 million South Africans was hacked, a figure representing more than half the country.
Data protection laws boost countries’ economies as well, helping eliminate legal ambiguity and reassuring companies that, if they expand in a country, their data will be safe and they will not face arbitrary litigation. But even more importantly, data privacy ensures that people feel safe enough to organize and express their political beliefs. In other words, it is fundamental to democracy — exposing the absurdity of the United States’ opposition in the name of democracy promotion.
Another dangerous aspect of the United States’ digital strategy is its punitive approach toward countries that levy taxes on multinationals that provide digital services. Digital services taxes are often cited as a core component of digital authoritarianism in Russia, since they weaken foreign firms and allow the Kremlin to nurture more pliable domestic providers of digital services. China, by contrast, has no need for such taxes, as it has already driven out most major foreign tech companies through internet censorship and invasive data-sharing requirements.
Digital services taxes can have downsides, of course. If they do not narrowly target foreign firms, such taxes can hamper the domestic technology ecosystem. Taxes that target firms’ transactions instead of their profits are likely to increase costs for consumers, making it more expensive to go online.
But they have benefits too. Digital services taxes secure significant revenue for countries with limited tax bases. Malaysia raised $126 million from its digital services tax in just one year, equal to 1.5 percent of its overall tax revenue. Smaller economies have been just as successful: Kenya raised $45 million and Ecuador raised $20 million in the first year of their digital services taxes. Over time, these taxes could generate up to 3 percent of a country’s tax revenue simply by levying fees on a few multinationals. Logan Wort, the African Tax Administration Forum’s executive secretary, told Jacobin that this fundraising potential demonstrates “the importance of countries taking such approaches to enhance their tax bases.”
These revenues are especially important in the context of the global economic crisis wrought by the pandemic, which has caused governments in the Global South to slash their budgets. Without digital services taxes, governments around the world would be much more likely to default on their loans from the International Monetary Fund, increasing the risk that creditors will force governments to cut costs by eliminating basic services.
The United States has launched a full-scale assault on digital services taxes. In June 2021, the Biden administration imposed a 25 percent tariff on a wide range of goods from India, Turkey, Spain, and Britain in response to their digital services taxes. US trade representative Katherine Tai said that the government would not enforce the tariffs for six months, allowing trade negotiations to continue while the threat of harsh economic reprisal loomed.
In October 2021, the corporate media celebrated Treasury secretary Janet Yellen’s “groundbreaking” negotiation of a global minimum tax for corporations. The agreement, which sets the minimum tax rate on corporations at 15 percent rather than the international community’s original goal of 25 percent, has a gaping loophole: it requires all 140 signatories to repeal their digital services taxes and not introduce similar taxes in the future.
Many of the world’s poorest countries refused to sign the deal, since they wanted to retain or implement digital services taxes to expand their tax bases. This has sparked fears that the United States will impose steep tariffs on “half of Africa.” In an interview with Jacobin, Wort warned that such a move would have “broader economic impacts on countries with economic ties to the US” and that countries that have not signed the agreement face “significant risk and continued loss of revenue” if they wait to adopt digital services taxes.
Though these coercive tactics are a boon for Big Tech, they have little tangible payoff for the United States. The US International Trade Commission found that eliminating all global digital trade barriers would boost US GDP by just 0.1 percent. Nevertheless, the United States is “waging war” on countries that impose nontariff barriers to digital trade — even democratic ones.
Samantha Power, the head of US Agency for International Development, announced at Biden’s Summit for Democracy that her agency would spend an additional $20 million on this variety of lobbying. “We’ll use these funds to help partner nations align their rules governing the use of technology with democratic principles and respect for human rights,” she said.
In April, the Biden administration codified its corporatist stance at the State Department’s signing ceremony for the Declaration for the Future of the Internet. The declaration, which was signed by sixty other countries, discourages countries from data localization, suggesting they “realize the benefits of data free flows [sic].” A leaked draft of the initiative’s aims clarifies that the Biden administration hopes to counter the “alternative vision of the Internet as a tool of State control promoted by authoritarian powers such as China and Russia.”
What Your Government Does Is Called Surveillance. We, on the Other Hand, Are Just Observant.
US technology companies and the think tanks they fund have a vested interest in highlighting digital authoritarianism abroad while downplaying America’s undemocratic control over much of the world’s digital infrastructure. China, Russia, and tens of other countries are indeed authoritarian states that use surveillance to control their populations. However, there is little evidence that these countries have embarked on a uniquely sinister mission to dominate the globe by empowering every strongman with a robot army.
The United States, Israel, France, and other countries that profess their love for democracy also surveil their populations and sell surveillance technology abroad, but there is no comparable moral panic from talking heads who condemn Chinese surveillance. The reason is simple: these pundits do not dislike surveillance, they just oppose it when Chinese companies are doing the snooping.
Inflating the supposedly singular threat posed by digital authoritarianism in China not only helps American companies avoid scrutiny for their surveillance abroad but also convinces lawmakers that antitrust legislation targeting Big Tech risks ceding the technology race to China. Meanwhile, according to Sambuli, policymakers in the Global South say behind closed doors that “increasingly, the biggest threat to the future of the internet is the United States.”
We should absolutely be concerned about governments surveilling their populations and tech companies monetizing people’s data without their consent. But when naming those responsible, the list should include Jeff Bezos and Joe Biden alongside Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.