How Big Tech Is Taking On Big Government

24:04 minutes

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Last month Microsoft announced it is opening an office to represent itself to the United Nations. But what’s a tech company have to do with the U.N.? Meet the “Net State.” In her book The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World, Alexis Wichowski writes about how big tech companies are becoming much more than technology providers, and what it means for world citizens when powerful government-like entities—the “Net States”—transcend physical borders and laws.

Read an excerpt from Wichowski’s new book that investigates what happens when tech giants assist in relief during natural disasters.

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Segment Guests

Alexis Wichowski

Alexis Wichowski is author of The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World (HarperCollins, 2020). She’s also Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Innovation for the City of New York and an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Next up, the United Nations has 193 member states, from Azerbaijan, to Azerbaijan, to Zimbabwe, and almost everything in between. But last month, a tech company, Microsoft, announced it would be opening an office in New York to represent itself to the UN so it can build relationships with UN representatives from around the world. It’s a sign, my next guest says, of how tech companies like Microsoft wield an influence that far surpasses software or search engines.

Take another tech giant, Google. It has its own counter-terrorism office. Isn’t fighting terrorists the domain of the US government and spy agencies? Well, not anymore. My next guest says we’re living in the era of the net state, her name for tech companies that have grown so large they resemble hugely powerful national governments in scope. Don’t forget about Tesla, auto-maker, energy company, satellite system, neuroscience lab all rolled into one.

So let me introduce my guest. Alexis Wichowski is Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Innovation for the City of New York, Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University. Her new book is The Information Trade, How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges our Rights, Transforms our World. We have an excerpt on our website at sciencefriday.com/informationbook. Welcome to Science Friday.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Thanks so much.

IRA FLATOW: I sort of took a stab at defining the net state. Tell us how you flesh that out.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Sure. So I think that your description was right on. It’s the term that I’ve used to describe tech companies, sort of the next stage of evolution, where they’ve gone beyond their primary products and services and into areas that used to be the sole domain of governments, things like defense, diplomacy, infrastructure building, and citizen services. And there is only a handful of net states, I think, out there in the world, but they wield just massive global influence. And I think that we need to really think about them not in the same way that we think about traditional corporations.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about, well, how are they different from, say, GM, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s. Those are mega companies.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: They absolutely are. And they have a global presence. But in some ways, it seems almost absurd to think of McDonald’s with a counter-terrorism unit or GM opening up a diplomatic office at the United Nations. One of the things that distinguishes net states is their ambition to cross sectors into areas that really used to be just something that the nation state dealt with.

IRA FLATOW: I want to bring up an example of that. But first, let me alert our listeners to our phone number, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @SciFri, 844-724-8255– talking about net states on Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Joining me is Alexis Wichowski, author of her new book. It’s The Information Trade. It’s an interesting book.

All right, let’s talk about how things are moving outside of their domain. Let me bring up, for example, Vermont. Tesla is transforming Vermont, but not with the cars themselves.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Right, that’s right. Elon Musk and Tesla have created another company called power pack– Power Wall that deploys power packs. These are solar energy panels, and arrays, and batteries that can store power from the sun. And the state of Vermont has now had such a widespread deployment of these power pack batteries that they’re able to not rely on traditional generators when they lose power.

IRA FLATOW: So they’ve created the grid, their own electric grid, something that the state or region might do on its own. It’s gone into that business.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Exactly. And it’s not the only place. There is now about 18 countries that have deployed grids powered by power pack and Power Wall around the world. And the question is, do the citizens of these states and countries, are they aware that it’s a private company providing their power to them? Does it matter to them? Or as long as somebody is providing it, is that OK?

I think that a lot of people don’t think about the things that government does for them until something goes awry. And so I think that it’s important to be aware of the fact that, in some instances, something as basic as your energy that fuels your home is being run by, in some cases, an automaker.

IRA FLATOW: Is it unregulated?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: It’s not to say that it is not subject to regulation, but it’s very clear when you read the terms and services for Power Wall that they collect certain amounts of user data about when energy is used and how it’s used. And as we’ve seen with other tech companies of this size, what happens with that user data is not regulated.

IRA FLATOW: And then you also talk about Puerto Rico.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: In Puerto Rico, after the hurricane in 2017, Hurricane Maria, the entire island lost electricity. And the US government was very slow to respond. So Tesla stepped in with its power packs and said, we can power your island, and brought in a whole system of power packs to supply energy to a children’s Hospital within just the first week or two after the hurricane.

IRA FLATOW: You know, when I think about this, I think of one side. I have two sides to all these battles. And when I think about it, I say, what a great thing they have done, helping people out. Then my other shoulder says, it’s all about the money, isn’t it?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: I think it’s a combination of both in some ways. It’s certainly a good PR move. It makes the company look really good to swoop in after a disaster and help out. But I think that more than that, what we’re seeing is, these opportunities are kind of proof of concept, Tesla showing that they can compete in this way, that they can be taken seriously as an energy supplier. And perhaps hopefully other countries will adopt them at a larger scale.

IRA FLATOW: But what’s to prevent them from saying, oh, this was a bad business investment. We’re just going to pull out. Too bad, you lose your electricity.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Well, this is exactly the reason that I think we need to be conscious about who is supplying our basic infrastructure services. Because governments are required to take care of their citizens to a certain degree and supply certain kinds of services and protections. The private sector is not. And they may do so for a time, because it seems like a good move, but they could change their mind at some point.

IRA FLATOW: And you say one of the differences is as simple as, not my responsibility, right? There is no government there. Who are you going to vote for to bring them back?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Exactly, we don’t vote for their leadership. There is no constitutional rights outlined that we can take advantage of. And so we have– I think we do have some power, but it’s not something that we recognize, because we don’t even really understand who is behind the scenes.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You researched all the acquisitions by tech companies since their inception. And you made a great grid of all those companies and analyzed how many of these aren’t straightforward internet infrastructure. They’re buying all kinds of stuff.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Absolutely. So I did some research from the inception date of six companies and looked at– and these are the big tech companies, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Tesla, Google, and Facebook– and looked at all of the other companies they’ve acquired, and found that something like 20% of their acquisitions were not related to their core digital services. They were in biotech, and health and wellness, and infrastructure, in food. They were in these areas that were very different than their main products and services.

And it’s not strange for a company to diversify and invest in other things that they think are going to make them money, but what is strange is that the scale of it, the scope of it. 20% is not a drop in the bucket. It’s a lot of money. It’s billions and billions of dollars.

IRA FLATOW: We used to call that horizontal diversification in the old days. We’re going to take a break and come back and talk. And this is so exciting and necessary to talk about, with Alexis Wichowski, author of– her new book is called The Information Trade, How Big Tech Conquers Countries– see the word conquers countries– Challenges Our Rights, Transforms Our World. Our number, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @SciFri. Lots more to come, stay with us. We’ll be right back.

You’re listening to Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking with Alexis Wichowski, Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Innovation for the City of New York. And her new book is The Information Trade, How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World. And just reading your pedigree here, I’m wondering, you work for the city of New York?


IRA FLATOW: How does the city of New York tackle this problem of these big tech companies?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: So this is something that’s more at the federal level that we’re talking about. And the kind of legislation and regulation that we would need, it would be from the federal government. And it’s something that we see in other countries and we see in Europe with the GDPR. We are seeing states start to tackle this. Like California has recently adopted user protection laws.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that brings me to an interesting point that you talk about in your book, is that a consortium of these big tech companies wanted to create– they knew there was a problem developing in their own infrastructure. And they said, well, we should discuss this with the federal government, and created a meeting with the federal government. And you tell us what happened.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: So yeah, a number of the major tech companies in Silicon Valley got together to talk about the number of challenges that they were experiencing, counter– there are terrorist activities proliferating on their platforms, the instability around elections, and the information that was being spread, the misinformation. So they got together and invited members of the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. And from the reporting in the New York Times about this meeting, it didn’t go so well.

There was not really an appetite to cooperate with or really collaborate with the tech companies. So they got the message, I think, that they’re really in this by themselves. And so I think this is one of the things that led them to create their own counter-terrorism teams internally. Facebook’s counter-terrorism team is larger than the State Department’s.

IRA FLATOW: Say that again?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Facebook’s counter-terrorism team has more people working there than the State Department’s counter-terrorism team does.

IRA FLATOW: That’s scary.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Well, I think that one of the reasons for this is that they feel like they’re on their own. Government is not stepping in the way that I think we would expect to in a traditional kind of conflict. I think they look at cyber conflict as sort of the domain of the cyber companies.

IRA FLATOW: Is this because they’re just ignorant about threats and what’s going on?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: I don’t think that there is total ignorance about it. I think there is an awareness that this is certainly an issue that needs to be dealt with. But I think there may be this sense that the tech companies, being the experts of their domains, are probably in the best position to deal with this on their own.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s move on– to this is mind boggling on some different, many different levels. Let me talk about if big tech companies are acting more like big government, if you wrote a digital Bill of Rights governing your online presence, what rights would it include? And you to talk about that in your book. And we asked our listeners on the Science Friday VoxPop app this week. And David in Anchorage said, a Bill of Rights would need a few prerequisites.

DAVID: A pre-requisite for any digital Bill of Rights would be the right to access the internet. Many of us don’t have access to cable. And internet providers now can determine access based on payment and who can pay the most.

IRA FLATOW: What do you think of that?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: I think that’s absolutely true. Even here in New York City, there is a number of– 18% of New Yorkers don’t have internet access in their homes. This is something that’s still a really big problem. And I think with mobile phones, we’re leapfrogging, in some cases, the need for home internet access. But it’s still something that’s not universal. It’s not a given.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go through your Bill of Rights that you wrote. Let’s go through them one by one.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Sure. So I think that there is really just a few basic principles we need to think about in terms of our rights, number one being that we should have the right to choose what our data is worth and how we pay for it. Some people may say, you know what? I don’t want to pay any money. I’m willing to give away my data in return for free use of some sort of online service or platform. Other people may choose that their data is worth something, that they want to exchange some sort of– there would be some sort of monetary exchange for their data. The second one is–

IRA FLATOW: Well let me just stop you there for a second.


IRA FLATOW: We have a Constitution. We have a Fourth Amendment in it. Do we need to update that, then, in this society we live in?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: I think that people have not paid much attention to the fact that the Fourth Amendment could apply to our data. I think there is this question of, what is our data? Is it of us? Is it part of us? Is it like our personal physical property? Or because it can be replicated without a loss to us, is it something different entirely? I think that we need maybe an expansion or reinterpretation of the Fourth Amendment for our modern times.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to your second bill.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Sure. So the second one is quite straightforward. And this is in the GDPR as well, is the right to know how our data is being used, so to make sure that we understand what companies are doing with our data, and that could be reported back to us.

IRA FLATOW: And in fact, the Wall Street Journal had an investigation out last week which revealed that the Department of Homeland Security is buying cell phone data to track people for immigration enforcement purposes, which sort of seems like they’re sidestepping the Fourth Amendment rights.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Yeah, they’re just, they’re moving around the legal issue by just making that purchase. And I think that this is something that needs to be looked at really carefully, because I think that when you look at the– I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t speak to the legal issue, but the spirit of the Fourth Amendment, it seems that this would qualify, that this law enforcement, if they are intentionally going around the legal channels they have to access this data, there is probably a reason for it. Maybe it wouldn’t hold.

IRA FLATOW: You write that, to quote, “our world needs a pact that establishes citizen user protections from net states, a set of principles, a sort of UN for net states,” right?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Right now there is really nothing that’s there for us. The terms of service that we signed and agree to are there to protect the tech companies. They’re not there to protect us. And so I’m saying that it would be in all of our best interests to have something that’s really to represent the citizen.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go on to your third recommendation.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Sure. And this one, this is this idea of being able to clean up our own content. So one of the things that’s really challenging about the internet is that things live on it forever. Something that you write, 10 years later, it’s as if you wrote it yesterday.

Even if you don’t believe in it or subscribe to it anymore, even if you feel that maybe it was a mistake, if you’re thinking has evolved or changed, there is nothing you can do about your own content on the public record. And this is probably one of the most controversial of the three, because this is not to say that we should censor our own content. But this is to say that we should have some sort of control over how that content is displayed.

IRA FLATOW: And the thing about this is– and we have a caller who called in and said he wanted to say that these companies aren’t elected. We didn’t elect these people, but we give over to them. And you might say, well, you it’s your choice to give over whatever rights. You read the EULA, the End User License Agreement. But in a world where we’re all connected, there really is not much choice, is there?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: No, there really is– it would be very difficult to somehow avoid the six major tech companies I write about in the book, not just because of the reach that they have, but because they themselves have acquired 673 other tech companies and other businesses. And to avoid all of them, you’d have to essentially live in a cabin.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I– it’s amazing, because years ago, I used to talk about this. I said that the game changer will be– loss of privacy will be when they can all recognize our face wherever we are. That has now happened.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Yeah, we have facial recognition technology that’s gotten quite good with certain subsets of the population.

IRA FLATOW: And people are selling that data. Wasn’t– there was a story a few weeks ago about two billion faces were up for sale?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: That’s right. And this is one of the things that I think, when we uploaded our photos on to Facebook and Instagram, 10 years ago, it’s not something we were thinking about as a possibility.

IRA FLATOW: Right, when you had your license picture taken at the DMV, you weren’t thinking of that–


IRA FLATOW: –as a possibility.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: And the question is, should the right to drive be connected to a this agreement that your face is now public domain material? It’s something that I think that we need to really look at carefully.

IRA FLATOW: And how do we do that? How do we have that conversation?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: I think part of the way we have that conversation is for citizens to mobilize. We have a lot more power than we give ourselves credit for. Maybe individually, if I stop– if I protest Google, or if I protest Facebook and the way that they’re using my data, it’s not going to do very much.

But we’ve seen collective movements online make a real difference in the world. The MeToo movement came through an online– it came online first. So I think that if we were able to organize and mobilize, we could actually make a case that we have some sort of way to push back against what’s used or how our data is being used.

IRA FLATOW: Is there is there a political issue here? We’re in a political year. Is there someone– I’m not going to tell you who to vote for. But I mean, should this become part of a political discussion that we’re having?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: I think it should be part of the political discussion, because this is something that affects just about every citizen in the country. It’s a global issue. It’s a foreign policy issue. It’s a national security issue. It’s a basic human right. So I think that this is something that it would behoove the people who are running for elected office to take up and pay attention to.

IRA FLATOW: 844-724-8255 is our number. You write about the hacking of governments. This is just an amazing concept. Like the city of Atlanta, hospitals, mission-critical infrastructure– I mean, we have stories about ransoming. You want your data back, hospital? Pay us $1 million.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Yeah, this is something that’s happened to cities all over the country. And in the case of Atlanta, they were– it was not actually a lot of money. It was somewhere around $50,000 they were being ransomed for.

But it brought the entire city to a standstill. And one of the things that was significant about this is that the people they called for help weren’t necessarily just the federal government. It was also companies like Microsoft, because they were the ones that had the technical expertise to really get them out of the trouble they were in.

IRA FLATOW: And that seems to be the thing. If I get held up, if I’m being held for ransom, you know, you call the police. And they come and bring their talker in who will try to talk to– but we’re not calling the police. We’re calling a tech company.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Exactly, exactly, because they’re the ones that are, A, stepping up, and B, have the expertise to actually help us out. And this is where, I think, the federal government is also– really needs to modernize and catch up with the times. We can’t just let– throw our hands in the air and say, OK, the tech sector will have the corner on expertise. I think that we really need to make sure that expertise makes it into government.

IRA FLATOW: 844-724-8255 is our number. So we, just in a few minutes left, do you have a roadmap, how we could move forward, become better?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Yeah, I think one of the things that we can do is by looking at the way these different net states operate, identify the ones that are being more responsible, and hold them up as examples. So one of the reasons I mentioned Microsoft earlier is because they have– they’re sort of the elder of the net states. They’ve been around the longest.

And they have, kind of understandably, evolved to the point where they are taking user data much more seriously. So when they had to comply with the GDPR in Europe and the European Union, they extended those rights to all of their users around the world. So anybody could sign up to say, I want those same user protections that people in the EU have. So I think that we need to celebrate the companies that are doing well by users and look at companies who are sharing or selling user data without our knowledge a little bit more carefully.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Alexis Wichowski, who is author of this is a great book, The Information Trade, How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, Transforms Our World. I don’t know how I ask this question, but I will. I mean, in the age of the net state, why do we need nation states?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: So this is, I think, one of the fundamental questions about what government’s there for.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I mean, we have a Constitution to ensure domestic tranquility, all of that stuff.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Yeah. Here is the thing. And I remember this put to me very well by a mayor in Brazil– he said, anybody can do good. Anybody can make the choice that they’re going to do good.

What’s really hard is to be fair. And that is government’s responsibility. We can see net states coming into people’s aid after a disaster, providing infrastructure, energy, telecommunications, but they may decide that they don’t have to. And that’s fine. They can do that. But government has to. That’s their responsibility. That’s why they exist, is to serve their people, to take care of the people.

IRA FLATOW: For the disadvantaged people.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Exactly, for the most vulnerable among us, and to be– make sure that services are equally accessible to everybody.

IRA FLATOW: And how do we ensure that happens?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: This is something that citizens need to, I think, pay more attention to. You know, it’s really hard. We’re overwhelmed. There is so much information out there. We’re all very busy. So I think that it’s not realistic to say we’re going to mobilize in the streets. But there are things that we can do, even online, using the tech tools that–

IRA FLATOW: Such as?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: –got us into this hot water in the first place.

IRA FLATOW: Give me an example.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Oh, well the MeToo movement was a great example of how an online campaign turned into a global phenomenon that had real-world consequences. And I think that if there were some sort of similar mobilization online to bring tech companies to account, it could make a difference.

IRA FLATOW: So there needs to be a movement?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: I think so. I think so. I think it’s not enough to say, oh, my privacy is gone. Too bad, I’m really sad about that, but there is nothing I can do.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think your book has started a movement or created one?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Well, I would like to see that happen. I would like to think that it makes a contribution and in that direction.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you for making that contribution here today.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: Alexis Wichowski is Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Innovation for the City of New York, Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University. Her new book is The information trade, How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, Transforms Our World.

We have an excerpt on our website, sciencefriday.com/informationbook. You were with us a few years ago, right?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: I was here three years ago. That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: And you– this was the impetus for creating this book?

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: It was because of I was on this show, somebody heard me in San Francisco. A book agent in San Francisco reached out to me and said, that was a great program. And would you like to turn this into a book? And now here I am three years later with the book.

IRA FLATOW: Maybe it kicks off a movement.

ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Maybe it does. Maybe it does, indeed.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you very much for–


IRA FLATOW: –taking the time to be with us today.

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