But Washington isn’t moving toward a privatization that encourages competition, as was theoretically true of classical procurement. Big tech is building new dependencies in government and giving businesses powers over the executive branch that would make Congress salivate. In a sense, Silicon Valley is slowly becoming a potential check and balance on executive authority.
Consider what happened when a small minority of Google employees feared that working on defense-related issues might compromise their ethics. They objected to the JEDI contract and Google bowed out, in part, because it couldn’t be assured the work “would align with our AI Principles.” These artificial intelligence principles had been written less than three months prior in response to another employee protest against a different Pentagon contract.
Up in Seattle, Amazon and Microsoft are facing an impending battle regarding the use of facial recognition software by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. After a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that Amazon was soliciting ICE as a customer, dozens of employees signed petitions decrying the possible use of Amazon’s surveillance system on the southern border. No contracts have been signed yet by the company. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Post.)
The most famous policy battle happened two years ago when the world’s largest company exercised control over its dominion: Apple chief executive Tim Cook refrained from helping the FBI get into a locked iPhone after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. The phone was opened without Apple’s consent, but the case is hardly settled.
These policy rebukes are not driven by lobbyists in Washington; they’re groundswells inside companies in California and Washington state. Never before have a handful of companies had the power to rebuke federal policy directly in matters of security, defense and immigration. Imagine that Delta Air Lines defied Homeland Security by refusing to abide by the TSA’s No Fly List. It couldn’t. But if Delta were one of the few airlines in the world, traveling faster than any competitors, it might have more pull. Tech companies today often have scale and singularity in their favor.
The tradeoffs of privatization did not begin with big tech. The Harvard Business Review warned of the privatization of government in 1991 shortly after the Reagan administration decreed “don’t just stand there, undo something.” The era of denationalization began globally and hasn’t declined. City governments, too, were reliant on companies for management of services, but tech accelerated the trend. Take Altamonte Springs, Fla., for example, which recently got rid of most city buses in lieu of offering subsidized Uber rides. Or Chicago, where Elon Musk’s Boring Co. is paying to build a mass transit system to O’Hare International Airport.
The previous debate over privatization was a philosophical one — is this the kind of government we want? But this new debate is more pragmatic: How do we modernize the government’s crumbling digital infrastructure without giving tech too much control?
The irony of these questions is that the vast majority of tech employees do not appear to want a diminished federal government. A recent Wired analysis of the midterm elections found that of the 125,000 political contributions by employees of Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft, 23 percent went to Democratic candidates while roughly 1 percent funded Republicans. (The remainder went to issue-related causes.) This great “undoing” of national government is being executed by self-proclaimed progressives who would cringe at the thought of enacting Reagan’s utopia via software updates.
Still, it’s clear this growing shift in power must be addressed. Some are floating the idea of a chief ethics officer at tech companies; others suggest something like the Federal Reserve Board, a body of nonpartisan experts and academics who are tasked with updating government-set standards and policies quarterly.
What’s needed imminently, though, is a mind-set shift — not just by tech companies, but by elected officials who’ve long seen themselves as responders to disruption, not initiators of it. If companies continue to take on government functions, Washington will have to start acting more like a portfolio manager rather than a regulator, rewarding the companies that enact good practices and incentivizing tech companies to build for civic needs.
But until there’s a Senate Committee on Technology Partnerships that’s as active as the Foreign Relations Committee, Silicon Valley will remain a shadow capital, subsuming the roles of government as Washington slowly competes away its influence.