Days before the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; activists, journalists, elected officials and technologists from across the globe gathered in Strasbourg, France for the eighth annual World Forum on Democracy.
Noticeably absent from this year’s gathering was any demonstration (or expectation) of U.S. soft power. But that’s not to say American influence was absent —quite the contrary. The common thread through almost every session was the tremendous reach of American economic values, as enshrined in the largest tech platforms; and the powerlessness that governments around the world— and their people — feel to hold these platforms to account. A world conversation about the health and future of democracy kept coming back to decisions being made in Menlo Park and Mountain View “by a small group of men — and they are mostly men,” as French journalist, Annette Gerlach, put it.
Christophe Deloire, Secretary General of Reporters without Borders told the audience, “platforms have replaced our parliaments,” and they “make decisions based on maximizing their profits” (as translated from French).
Pakistani human rights lawyer, Nighat Dad, said that at first she found hope that online spaces offered empowered marginalized people but now fears the negative effects of people finding incorrect, manipulated information and no way to stop its spread. “I see Mark Zuckerberg testifying in Congress but there is no accountability in a country like Pakistan, where they have no offices.”
On the last day, I met a journalist from Côte d’Ivoire, Lacinan Ouattara, on the bus to the conference. After exchanging cards, mine noting that I was based in the Bay Area, the conversation turned to Facebook. He told me that he had tried — with no luck — for over a year to talk to a person at Facebook about what was going on in his country. “They have three offices for all of Africa,” he told me. “There are 300 million people in West Africa and one Facebook office… In my country, a rumor, a lie, can kill a thousand people,” he said, explaining that why there is such a great need for someone from these companies to be present in country.
In the days that followed, I could not get two thoughts out of my mind from that event:
- The outsized global geopolitical influence of a few people who make the decisions in these companies, and
- The simple suggestion that companies with that much influence should at least provide a point of contact — ideally a front door, a telephone number, and someone who can meet with officials and activists and be interviewed by journalists — in the countries where they operate.
I get that the employees and management of Facebook and Google face ethical and technical challenges unlike any before in human history. But the analog, old school strategy of putting real employees on the ground (or, better yet, hiring people in those countries) seems like such a no-brainer. It never occurred to me that this was not the case already.
As one of the most influential forces in global politics, with market caps larger than many countries’ economies, Facebook and Google are truly operating at the scale of nation-states. There is no excuse for entities that impact so many lives and governments to not designate a human point of contact for local journalists, communities, and officials. Throw out a shingle on Main Street. Have a phone number. Take questions and input from real people.
Denmark recently recognized the nation-state scale of tech companies influence by naming the first tech ambassador to Silicon Valley. And the concept of “techplomacy” has now officially entered the lexicon. But these companies don’t just need to sit back require that the world comes to them. Once a company reaches nation-state scale and is viewed as more influential in the affairs of nations than almost any one country, it’s time to open some “embassies” and engage real people on the ground.
This, of course, will not be a panacea. Putting people in place will only create the conditions in which conversations and learning can begin, but it would at least be a tangible gesture of a willingness to listen, and that would be a welcome change from the current state of affairs.