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Anastasia Tolstukhina

PhD in Political Science, Program Coordinator and Website Editor at the Russian International Affairs Council

Traditionally, private companies have advocated minimal government intervention into their activities. Yet, starting in 2019, the situation began to change radically. Today, global business is openly calling for stronger government cyberspace regulation.

Tech giants are calling on Western governments to be more actively involved in regulating confidential data protection, suppressing attempted election meddling, dealing with harmful content and handling data portability.

Let us try to identify the factors prompting businesses to call for increased regulation and to be willing to work together with governments on creating new technical regulations. First, tech companies face major user confidence issues. Recently, a series of scandalous leaks rocked Facebook, Google, and other technology companies, including Microsoft. These leaks affected tens of millions of users. Bill Gates believes that government resolutions can help ensure confidence in the information that is being widely disseminated through online platforms. Second, it is important for tech companies to bring government requirements (particularly in western states) to a single standard, that is, to give an easily understandable form to confidentiality policy, as well as to security and protection standards. A single standard always makes doing business easier. Third, if single standards and rules are developed, those companies that fail to comply may be held accountable. This is an excellent way to consolidate one’s market standing and undermine competitors. Finally, by calling for government regulations, companies will be able not merely to join the process of drafting rules that suit them but to take the lead in this, especially since they have the groundwork already laid out. Now they only need to advance and legally enshrine it.

At the same time, many politicians and experts are wary about business’s active stance in regulating cyberspace as they are concerned about tech giants possibly imposing a digital dictatorship. Governments are ready to cooperate with tech companies in information security only provided both sides are on an equal footing.

Given today’s situation, with states waging true digital wars, carrying out cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, spreading fakes and dangerous content on a mass scale, using AI technologies more and more often, we can predict a spike in government regulation and cyberspace control in western states. Even so, the major issue is the degree to which the interests of IT giants will be taken into account; in creating a “cyber frontline,” regulators will demand that Silicon Valley leaders be more transparent about how their algorithms work, demonstrate greater accountability, and exchange information; governments will also set additional requirements on digital infrastructure protection.

Traditionally, private companies have advocated minimal government intervention into their activities. Yet, starting in 2019, the situation began to change radically. Today, global business is openly calling for stronger government cyberspace regulation.

“The government needs to get involved… there will be more regulation of the tech sector”, Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, said in October 2019 to the Bloomberg news agency. A bit earlier, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg publicly voiced the same idea. Tech giants are calling on Western governments to be more actively involved in regulating confidential data protection, suppressing attempted election meddling, dealing with harmful content, and handling data portability.

Let us try to identify the factors that prompt businesses to call for increased regulation and to be willing to work together with governments on creating new technical regulations.

First, tech companies face major user confidence issues. Recently, a series of scandalous leaks rocked Facebook, Google, and other technology companies, including Microsoft. These leaks affected tens of millions of users. Facebook was massively criticized by the government and individuals, which accused the platform of focusing insufficient attention on hate speech on the social network, this having allegedly affected the outcome of the 2016 US presidential elections. Bill Gates believes that government resolutions can help ensure confidence in the information that is being widely disseminated through online platforms.

Second, it is important for tech companies to bring government requirements (particularly in western states) to a single standard: that is, to give easily understandable shape to confidentiality policy, as well as to security and protection standards. For instance, Apple supports global confidentiality rules, while Microsoft proposes restrictions on face recognition technology. A single standard always makes it easier to do business.

Third, if single standards and rules are developed, those companies that fail to comply may be held accountable. This is an excellent way to consolidate one’s market standing and undermine competitors.

Finally, by calling for government regulations, companies will be able not merely to join the process of drafting rules that suit them, but to take the lead in this, especially since they have the groundwork already laid out. Now they only need to advance and legally enshrine it. We should note that, recently, the biggest tech companies have gained sufficient experience in advancing various initiatives for shaping cyberspace rules of conduct and boosting the mechanisms for protecting the Internet against various types of threat, be it dissemination of illegal content or cyberattacks on the digital infrastructure. We may mention the Digital Geneva Convention, the Charter of Trust and the Cybersecurity Tech Accord. One of the latest initiatives launched by major IT corporations and several charitable foundations is the CyberPeace Institute, which aims to help cybercrime victims and encourage responsible conduct in cyberspace.

At the same time, many politicians and experts are wary about business’s active stance in regulating cyberspace. At the 14 th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in November 2019, Germany’s Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized IT giants saying, “This raises the danger that global companies might build up parallel worlds – with their own rules and standards – which they will then try to impose on others.”

Big Tech’s growing influence is the problem broached at the latest World Economic Forum in Davos. Much was said about losing control over infotech giants and the danger of AI’s digital dictatorship. For instance, historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari emphasized in his speech, “What will be the meaning of human life when most decisions are taken by algorithms? We don’t even have philosophical models to understand such an existence. … The twin revolutions of infotech and biotech are now giving politicians the means to create heaven or hell.” The general message of the Forum was the importance of regulating the latest technologies by having all stakeholders establish the rules of the game.

Another example of the regulators’ wary attitude toward initiatives proposed by business is the trip to Brussels by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg in February 2020. At a meeting with European commissioners, he attempted to propose a package of regulatory initiatives in AI, data and digital services. In particular, Mr Zuckerberg presented a 13-page document on content regulation called “Charting the Way Forward: Online Content Regulation.” It proposed implementing not a national but a global policy on allowed Internet content. The head of Facebook believes that Internet companies should either not be held accountable for the content uploaded thereon or freedom of speech should be curtailed. However, European Commissioner Thierry Breton aptly reminded Mark Zuckerberg that it is the companies that should comply with the EU’s rules and not vice versa. The commissioner also noted that Facebook had been slow in proposing ideas for removing illegal content and warned that the EU was ready to go into action on this.

Anastasia Tolstukhina:
Business in Need of Cyber Rules

Certainly, such statements do not mean that European officials do not wish to cooperate with tech companies in information security. For instance, Vera Jourova, Vice-President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, calls upon such companies as Facebook to make additional efforts and help states protect democracy. She proposes that, for this purpose, “black box” algorithms be opened for “auditing” by researchers and other concerned parties so that the public might have a better understanding of what and how it consumes via the Internet.

If we move to the American continent, we see there some individual proposals on helping business in matters of information security. For instance, the Cyberspace Solarium Commission believes that the US government should prioritize major support for the private sector in ensuring the critical information infrastructure (CII) security. The thing is that, today, infrastructural facilities mostly depend on private companies for their cybersecurity, while the US government plays just a supporting role. The Commission proposes creating a multilevel cyber deterrent strategy involving a reconfiguring of public-private partnership.

Given today’s situation, with states waging true digital wars, carrying out cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, spreading fakes and dangerous content on a mass scale, and using AI technologies more and more often, we can predict a spike in government regulation and cyberspace control in western states. Even so, the major issue is the degree to which the interests of IT giants will be taken into account; in creating a “cyber frontline”, regulators will demand that Silicon Valley leaders be more transparent about how their algorithms work, demonstrate greater accountability and exchange information; governments will also set additional requirements on digital infrastructure protection.

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