Major technology and social-media companies— think Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Google— wield tremendous power. Given their reach, their financial heft, their importance to vast swaths of customers dependent on their goods, services, and platforms, and their ability to influence (if not altogether dictate) transnational public policy, these firms often look and act the part of proprietors, stewards, and even governors of digital public squares.
These firms do so right now at a moment of great political, economic, and technological flux and unease. Today, questions and concerns are regularly voiced over the tech giants’ market share; over the ways they run their various digital platforms; over their editorial policies and ability to shape the news; and over their policing of (or failure to police) individuals and groups who use the firms’ goods, services, and platforms.
Questions and concerns likewise surround these tech giants’ role in supporting US intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic operations at a moment when some of those operations are themselves subject to considerable debate and scrutiny.
These firms thus find themselves at the center of two critical, vexing, and ultimately related conversations. First, there is what I’ll call the digital public square conversation: millions of citizen-consumers rely on technology and social-media companies’ goods, services, and fair and stable platforms to remain socially, politically, and economically engaged and empowered. Second, there is the deputization conversation: many of those very same technology and social-media companies— so powerful in their dealings with the general public— are expected, pressured, and often obligated to share their data with government agencies, to facilitate or intensify state surveillance over citizen-consumers, and even to advance the state’s domestic or foreign policy agenda.