How Davos Went Silent on Big Tech Debate

How Davos Went Silent on Big Tech Debate

Ken Hu 2nd R, Deputy Chairman and Rotating CEO of Huawei, attends a penal discussion during the 49th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 22, 2019.

SourceXinhua/Xu Jinquan via Getty

Why you should care

The industry faces greater questions about its future and its responsibilities than ever before.

There is always a fundamental tension at the World Economic Forum in Davos about what business does, and what it says. Nowhere is this tension greater than in the conversation around big tech, and the challenges that “surveillance capitalism” poses to competition, privacy and civil liberty, even as it enriches companies in not just the tech sector, but every industry.

During the first full day of WEF programming this past week, there were plenty of official sessions about how to govern data and run digital economies fairly, though they were marked with a techno-optimism that was decidedly out of touch with the public’s concern about the disruptive effects of the digital economy on their jobs and national politics. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, released on the first day of the conference, for example, 73 percent worry about fake news being used as a weapon.

The tech industry itself was in full public relations mode, trying to combat the growing “techlash.” One of the most popular sessions of the day, Strategic Outlook for the Digital Economy, was moderated by Victoria Espinel, president and CEO of the Business Software Alliance, a large industry lobbying group.

Those who have lived under dictatorships say, ‘Please don’t give me a ministry of truth.’ But is it acceptable that Mark Zuckerberg is the minister of truth?

Marietje Schaake, European Parliament member

The conversation, like many in Davos, tiptoed around the most pressing issues. Ken Hu, a deputy chairman from Chinese telecommunications equipment company Huawei, was on the panel, as was Alfred Kelly, CEO of Visa. Yet there was no discussion of the security battles that led to the recent arrest in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, or the fact that the U.S. is seeking her extradition. Nor was there any discussion of China’s battle with Visa or other foreign companies.

But behind the scenes, and amid U.S.-China trade negotiations, many delegates were talking about the growing conflict between Western companies and governments that want to come up with clearer rules for how to ensure the free flow of digital information across borders, and countries such as China where the government has more control. Trade representatives, lawyers and officials from countries including the U.S., Australia, Japan and Singapore will be discussing the topic in Davos this week.

As one U.S. participant in those talks put it: “Four years ago, when it became clear that the Chinese state was going to exert more control over the economy, a lot of people gave them a pass. Now, there is a feeling of, ‘Why should Alipay or China UnionPay get the whole market?’”

Indeed, there was talk that the legitimacy of the World Trade Organization itself will hinge on whether the divisions between the U.S., Europe and China can be hashed out. Meanwhile, companies from all countries and geographies were struggling to balance the need to retain public trust with the desire to tap into the profits of big data.

In a number of private sessions, multinationals in the auto, health, agriculture and financial sectors were talking up their plans to use big data to increase productivity and profit margins in a variety of ways — from sensors that track soil moisture to personalized medical devices that relay health information to doctors in real time.

“In some senses, every company wishes it had Facebook’s problems — not only its outsize margins but also its control over personal data, which after all is the secret of its outsize margins,” says David Kirkpatrick, founder of Techonomy Media and author of The Facebook Effect, who hosted a dinner on fifth generation attended by several tech leaders.

“The effort at every company is to understand whether there might be a way to assemble data without offending the public and violating their privacy. Blockchain is often mentioned in these conversations, of course. But the infrastructures we need are probably still several years away, at least,” Kirkpatrick says.

Seamless standards of global governance around data also seem like a distant dream. While the U.S. conversation is still dominated by business pushing for light-touch regulation, the Chinese are lauding a model of centralized control of big data as the way to move ahead in areas such as artificial intelligence and 5G. Both models worry Europeans, who want to put privacy and citizens, rather than consumers, as first priority.

At a WEF session on governing data, a participant from Turkey asked the panel whether the government could be trusted to set the right standards. Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament, summed up the existential challenge with her response.

“Those who have lived under dictatorships say, ‘Please don’t give me a ministry of truth,’ and I agree with that fully. But is it acceptable that Mark Zuckerberg is the minister of truth? Facebook and private companies determine so much about what is acceptable and not acceptable [regarding what can and is done with citizens’ data].”

She added: “Private norms are becoming more commonplace and aren’t criticized.”

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By Rana Foroohar

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