The aftermath of the January 6 riot serves as the latest proof that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter are no longer merely large companies; they have taken control of aspects of society, the economy, and national security that were long the exclusive preserve of the state. Photo: REUTERS
The aftermath of the January 6 riot serves as the latest proof that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter are no longer merely large companies; they have taken control of aspects of society, the economy, and national security that were long the exclusive preserve of the state. Photo: REUTERS

Is it time for South Africa to build a National Technology Champion and protect sovereignty?

By Wesley Diphoko Time of article published Nov 7, 2021

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THERE was a time when technology was just about technology.

In recent years this has changed as technology companies exert their influence on society. This has implications on how tech companies should be treated. No one makes this point better than Ian Bremer who wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs magazine.

In it he points out that “states have been the primary actors in global affairs for nearly 400 years”. That is starting to change, as a handful of large technology companies rival them for geopolitical influence.

The aftermath of the January 6 riot serves as the latest proof that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter are no longer merely large companies; they have taken control of aspects of society, the economy, and national security that were long the exclusive preserve of the state.

The same goes for Chinese technology companies, such as Alibaba, ByteDance, and Tencent. Non-state actors are increasingly shaping geopolitics, with technology companies in the lead. And although Europe wants to play, its companies do not have the size or geopolitical influence to compete with their American and Chinese counterparts. In view of all these developments, the most important question on minds of leaders in Africa should be: how should Africa treat Big Tech companies.

The reason for this is simple and again this is the point that Ian Bremer makes by pointing out that “it is time to start thinking of the biggest technology companies as similar to states”.

Bremer makes this point also because more and more big tech companies are starting to act as champions of governments from where they originate. By national champions Bremer means that there are companies that are more willing to align themselves explicitly with the priorities of their home governments.

These firms are partnering with governments in various important domains, including the cloud, AI, and cybersecurity.

They secure massive revenues by selling their products to governments, and they use their expertise to help guide these same governments’ actions. If this is true, big tech companies should no longer be treated as neutral entities.

Where a big tech company originates matters now more than ever.

The extent to which big tech companies are allowed to play in various parts of the world should be reviewed.

The extent to which countries depend on big tech companies for their own activities as well as national economic activities should be reassessed. In the African context there has never been a better time to develop local technologies.

This is happening already across the continent. Local technology companies are a force to be reckoned with across the tech ecosystem.

The challenge however is that none of these tech companies are receiving the support they deserve.

Current global developments in the tech world can no longer be ignored. It has become imperative for states to develop their own tech champions.

According to Bremer, Microsoft’s growing role in policing digital space on behalf of the US and allied democracies and targeting misinformation spread by state actors and international crime syndicates is leading it in the national champion direction model.

China according Bremer has also adopted this model with companies such as Tencent.

The rise of National champion tech companies is a trend that has not been detected as these companies are global in nature. Most countries make use of big tech company technologies assuming that they are dealing with private entities. What is becoming clear is that big tech companies are not lone rangers. What is even worse is that big tech companies have become states in their own right in terms of the power they possess. These days Big Tech companies can make or break economies of countries.

For countries to continue to maintain their sovereignty their dependency on big tech has to be re-evaluated.

This is not to say countries ought to do without Big Tech.

It is important to understand risks and exposure to big tech companies.

In instances where big tech companies are in full control of industries and key services, countries need to be aware of this and work towards independence. This is not a challenge for one or two governments.

Big tech companies are presenting a challenge for governments across the world. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for governments to reign them in.

The negative aspect of this is that most big tech companies are led by individual CEOs in some instances who are less accountable to even their boards of directors.

The World Economic Forum has inspired countries to prepare themselves for the 4th industrial revolution.

In doing so, countries will have to tread carefully about technologies they adopt. There’s now a case for countries to develop national tech champions to maintain sovereignty.

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BUSINESS REPORT ONLINE

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