How tech companies are shaping the Ukraine conflict

Earlier this year, Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, announced that people could create posts on its social media platforms calling for violence against Russia. That was unprecedented. One of the world’s largest tech companies has very publicly chosen sides in a geopolitical conflict. Russia now fought not only a country, but also multinational companies with financial shares at the exit. In response, Russia announced a ban on Instagram within its borders. The consequences were significant. The ban, which eventually included Facebook, cost Meta nearly $2 billion.

The war in Ukraine is showing tech companies how their decisions can affect geopolitics, in a massive shift from the past. Tech companies have either been caught up in conflicts because of customers using their services (e.g., people listing their West Bank homes on Airbnb) or by following government foreign policies (e.g., SpaceX supplies internet to the United States to Iran ). some sanctions lifted).

Now tech companies are shaping the war independently in real time, deciding what capabilities to deploy and what setback they are willing to tolerate.

This leads to a new global reality. Any country (or group) with geopolitical ambitions can no longer only plan how nations might respond, but must also consider how tech companies might respond. From my perspective as an expert on the convergence of technology and geopolitics, the beliefs and ideologies of technology leaders are just as important today as those of politicians.

The Internet is a prime example. As the war began, Russian forces attempted to paralyze Ukraine by controlling critical infrastructure such as nuclear power plants. For example, the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, which Russia took control of, generates a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity.

This strategy didn’t work for the Internet. Just days after the start of the Ukraine war, the US-based company SpaceX chose sides and began supplying Starlink, its satellite-based internet service, to the Ukrainian government, allowing Kyiv to retaliate against Russian forces. One of Ukraine’s deadliest drone divisions, Aerorozvidka, was only able to attack Russian forces for access to Starlink.

As of October 2022, the total cost for SpaceX to ship Starlink terminals to Ukraine was $80 million. Even if that relationship is now in doubt, with the involvement of SpaceX, Ukraine was able to prevent Russia from controlling the country’s internet.

Social media has provided another checkpoint in the conflict. When Ukraine’s digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said Twitter had become a “tool to destroy Russia’s economy,” he alluded to a larger game by Ukraine to use big tech against Russia. The lobbying of the tech world has been effective. From Alphabet ending all advertising sales in Russia to Apple banning VK, Russia’s largest social media platform, from its ecosystem, Russian society has been digitally “squeezed”.

And Ukraine’s lobbying has been backed by Big Tech, who have urged other governments to take action. A European lobby group called DigitalEurope, which includes companies like Amazon, has called on the European Union to donate technological infrastructure to Ukraine. However, the blocking of Russian access to some social media platforms has not resulted in a complete blackout: new Russian alternatives such as Rossgram have emerged to replace Instagram.

And as Russian forces battle Ukrainian resistance, satellite imagery becomes increasingly important. Google has disabled live traffic features in Ukraine, a feature that could give Russia insight into the locations of Ukraine’s armed forces. At the same time, MDA, a Canadian space company specializing in imagery or geospatial intelligence, received permission from the Canadian government to provide Ukraine with satellite imagery of Russian troop movements on Ukrainian territory. So far, only Russia has had “eyes” on Ukraine through satellite imagery, because Russia was one of the few countries with space capabilities. But now, with the help of Western tech companies, Ukraine is gaining similar capabilities and awareness of the movement of Russian forces.

When the Ukraine conflict began, all eyes turned to Western governments to see how they would respond. Would Russia be decoupled from the global financial system SWIFT? Could Europe withstand a new refugee crisis? Was the world ready for a global energy crisis? In all of this, the role of tech companies has been overlooked or misunderstood, whether in the form of Russia not expecting Western tech companies to help Ukraine, or Western nations mistakenly assuming that disrupting tech flows to Russia would speed up the war would end. Even countries like China are involved, even if its technology companies have not taken a clear position on the Ukraine war.

But perhaps it’s the decisions of tech companies that have the most lasting impact. After the war, the Ukrainian government wants to transform the country into a technology powerhouse like Israel. Ukraine’s president wants the country to become a “digital state” that relies more heavily on technology supplied by foreign companies for its own reinvention. But more importantly, as tech companies are shaping the war in Ukraine and helping to rebuild the nation, these companies can gain “control” over the most critical parts of the state — from infrastructure like the internet to defenses in the form of satellite imagery. These companies represent an independent force – separate from the Ukrainian government, the Russian government or the Ukrainian people.

Tech firms are changing the balance of power as Ukraine acquires capabilities it did not previously have, and Russia is in some cases denied those capabilities. Of course, not everything is pro-Ukraine. While many Western companies are quickly leaving Russia, many Asian companies are continuing their operations there.

Still, this strongly political movement in technology should be a wake-up call for nations around the world. Technology companies are no longer silent about geopolitical revenue, as many Western companies have been in China, despite that nation’s behavior towards its political enemies. Nor do they blindly follow government decisions. They act independently and sometimes unexpectedly to achieve geopolitical goals – ones they set for themselves. In the future, supporting Google or Meta will mean as much to a country as supporting the world’s superpowers. And along with all that, nations that rely on tech companies might struggle with those companies — and their leaders — changing attitudes on the fly.

With no end in sight to the Ukraine conflict, the stage is set for other tech companies to take even bolder action. Regardless of what their goals are, how to get involved in conflicts where democracy is threatened, or how far these companies will go to achieve them, how to move away from tens of millions of users, one thing has become clear: je the more tech companies shape geopolitics, the more control they will have over the world; and countries and companies will struggle for that control in the years to come.

This is an opinion and analysis article and the views expressed by the author or authors do not necessarily reflect those of Scientific American.


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