Russia invasion of Ukraine shines light on Big Tech’s role in war

It is, in the face of Russia’s crushing invasion of Ukraine, hard not to get the sinking feeling we have entered a new and dangerous era.

The current war, instigated by a Russian leader who, according to reports, is increasingly unstable, threatens to shift the tectonic plates of history and upend the long-established post-Second World War order.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that this very 21st century conflict should, like others of the past two decades, also be taking place online. In this new epoch, digital technology is both a field of battle itself — a place where propaganda and information are spread — and also part of the logistics of war.

That change was inevitable. But the conflict has also revealed just how central technology companies have become to the functioning of the world — that everything from our communication infrastructure to traffic is under the domain of private companies. And long-term, that is a situation that poses too many risks to be allowed to stand.

To be clear, these are still-new circumstances to which everyone is still adapting. The invasion of Ukraine, for example, has been documented on TikTok, the wildly popular short-form video app. As Kyle Chayka wrote recently in The New Yorker, TikTok and its viral-friendly, often ironic tone has made the documentation of war take on a strange, quintessentially modern character — that “on the internet, all content follows similar laws of motion, whether it’s showing a land invasion in Europe or a cat doing something funny.”

That structure of shareability, however, means that social media is also a place for propaganda. The now-familiar nature of Russian misinformation — clever subterfuge meant to sow doubt — is joined by misinformation on all sides. Determining truth in the fog of war is always hard, and now it is harder still.

To its credit, Big Tech has taken some clear, commendable steps. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and others have removed or de-prioritized Russian outlets, in some cases hiding them entirely in the EU. Further, apps from Russia’s RT and Sputnik networks and have been removed from Apple and Google’s stores (in addition to begin taken off the air by Rogers and Bell here, too).

We can call these steps commendable because of the clear moral contours of this invasion in which Russia’s Putin-led military is clearly the aggressor and both Ukrainians and the hapless, young Russian soldiers sent off to war are the victims.

But in situations that are either more murky, or in which the American companies in question would inevitably express their loyalty to America and its often imperialist aims, the situation in which Big Tech wields so much power that it can remove content from broad swaths of the world seems more worrying.

Put another way, we can safely say that Big Tech is acting correctly this time, as we also consider the risks of them being able to act in this way at all.

Consider: another move made by tech has been turning off traffic and GPS data in Ukraine so that the massing of artillery and armoured vehicles can’t be detected. While again that is inarguably the right move, it points to the fact that what should arguably be publicly controlled data is in fact of the hands of private companies.

The point is that tech in the form of the web, the infrastructure underneath it, and the myriad applications upon which the world relies, tech now forms the practical skeleton of modern life.

So central are tech companies to the world that, when Russia started rolling out destructive software called malware, Microsoft took it upon itself to clamp down on its spread.

It is admittedly a rather pleasant change when, in the face of dire circumstances, one can praise Big Tech.

But we might also ask why tech has reacted well and quickly to this situation and not others. Why, for example, can YouTube and Facebook crack down on propaganda from Russia, but not in response to the killing in Myanmar, anti-Muslim foment in India, white nationalist channels in American and here at home, and hundreds of other situations?

Simply put, we have outsourced too much of the stuff of modern life to Big Tech, and placed both too much responsibility in their hands and also too much faith in their capacity to live up to that burden.

We are in a new phase of history, and whatever happens in Ukraine, a new world order will emerge. And while one hopes that the tragedy unfolding there ends with as little loss and suffering as possible, we must also look to the future — to a world in which the basic functioning of society and global infrastructure is not in the hands of a cluster of private, American companies. Right now, we are in a dark moment — but it is also a time to imagine something brighter.

Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance contributing technology columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @navalang

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