Talking Points

Is Big Tech its own country? Not really.

Big Tech: It's like a whole other country. Last month, The Atlantic's Adrienne LaFrance made the case that Facebook is "the largest autocracy on Earth." Now, in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Ian Bremmer argues we're living in a "technipolar moment" in which companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook have become so powerful and ubiquitous they function much like independent countries — albeit without the borders that usually mark the limits of nation-states.

"These companies exercise a form of sovereignty over a rapidly expanding realm that extends beyond the reach of regulators: digital space," Bremmer writes. "They bring resources to geopolitical competition but face constraints on their power to act. They maintain foreign relations and answer to constituencies, including shareholders, employees, users, and advertisers."

Bremmer offers several scenarios for how Big Tech's powers might develop next. The most disconcerting is his vision of the ambitions of "techno-utopians" — think Elon Musk —  interested in circumventing states to displace the existing world order altogether. Under their sway, Bremmer imagines with displeasure a planet where patriotism becomes "moot," cryptocurrencies create a monetary system largely outside government control, and "Facebook substitutes for the public square, civil society, and the social safety net." The irony of the techno-utopian ideal, of course, is that to many people it will sound dystopian. (And Bremmer's actual expectation is far more mundane: that tech companies will end up as power players in the burgeoning rivalry between the U.S. and China.)

It's true these companies have enormous power, and Bremmer's scenarios are evocative, but the "sovereign states" metaphor strains under scrutiny. Yes, Big Tech can undermine governments and powerful politicians — witness how former President Donald Trump was deplatformed after Jan. 6. But it also augments them: Amazon and Microsoft provide critical national security services for the United States, as Bremmer acknowledges. More importantly, governments can choose to put limits on tech companies, or even break them up. So far, at least, the reverse is not true.

Indeed, corporations like Apple, which just pulled a Koran app at the request of the Chinese government, are still fairly deferential to state institutions. What's more, techno-utopians probably can't — or won't — offer many of the real-world services a government provides. Mark Zuckerberg is trying to create a Matrix-like "metaverse" where we can interact inside Facebook's servers. He probably isn't going to build roads, pay Social Security, or muster an army to defend the citizens of his realm. His company is like a state ... except in all the core functions of the state.