Malaysia is almost certainly set to be tossed about between Scylla and Charybdis. And very soon.
This is because a new Cold War is heating up. This time, however, the combatants are the US and China – the entrenched power vs the rising power.
In the First Cold War, the US and the USSR fought proxy wars in foreign lands, developed ever-bigger nuclear warheads, raced to space on ever-more powerful rockets and sent spies to infiltrate each other’s countries.
The Second Cold War will be more globally impactful, but less kinetic. More people will be affected and made pawns in the two powers’ elaborate war games but, paradoxically, less people will realise it – until it’s too late. And the biggest losers – those feeling the biggest impact – will be governments the world over.
This war will be fought not on vast plains, amidst the dense forest thicket, or up in the air. Rather, it’ll be fought in cyberspace – a war of bits and bytes, of mass data collection and constant surveillance. And it’ll largely be fought not by the US and China directly but by their technological proxies – Big Tech.
On the US side, the charge will almost certainly be led by Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. Opposite them, the Chinese garrison will be manned by Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei, BBK (owner of Oppo, Vivo and OnePlus), and Baidu.
And unless you’re living under a rock or are a luddite, you would know that these tech oligopolies are already controlling a large part of your online, and increasingly even offline, lives. Their control begins the moment you decide to buy a smartphone or a computer – the technological gatekeepers to the modern world.
But this is nothing new. Big Tech has slowly been encroaching into and eroding our privacy rights, sometimes even dictating the information we have access to, and stifling the startup ecosystem for more than a decade now.
Similarly, Chinese Big Tech’s compliance and subservience to the Chinese government is no secret. Fraser Howie, author of “Red Capitalism”, has even gone so far as to dub them “state overseen enterprises”.
However, what is relatively new is American Big Tech’s increasing coziness with the US government. This is a fairly recent occurrence as US tech companies have historically been averse to governments, bureaucracy’s often stifling regulations and what they regard as undue oversight.
However, an early marker of the changing times was when Amazon secured a sweetheart US$600 million deal with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to provide the notoriously risk-averse intelligence organisation with its cloud computing platform in 2014.
Since then, Amazon’s only gotten more intimate with the US government, now servicing other agencies such as the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and even the Pentagon.
Microsoft has been moving in the same direction as well, securing a whopping US$10 billion deal to provide cloud computing services to the Department of Defence last year, making the tech behemoth one of the US government’s largest defence contractors.
I’m sure this would have put a smile on the faces of Silicon Valley luminaries such as Peter Thiel and Eric Schmidt, who have been calling for exactly such cooperation and more between Big Tech and the US government.
Besides the obviously lucrative nature of these deals, there is another major reason for this seachange in the relationship dynamics between the American Big Tech and the US government:
China’s uber-effective use of its Big Tech companies almost as de-facto arms of the state has, in equal measure, spooked and inspired the Americans to do the same. China’s ingenious integration of its decisive, autocratic government and its ambitious, innovative tech companies is making it the world’s first “Super State”, propelling a reactionary wave of American tech nationalism.
This bristling rivalry isn’t about owning ever bigger, more destructive weapons (although there’s still a component of it), but rather, it’s about having more data and through that, more influence over people – both within its borders and abroad.
So this brings us to Malaysia. I bet you can’t name a single Malaysian who doesn’t use any or even a majority of these services: WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Gmail, Microsoft Outlook, WeChat and Tiktok. No, your grandmother doesn’t count.
The problem is, these modern communication essentials are exclusively of American and Chinese origin. How long would it take before the treasure trove of Malaysian data that’s being handled by these Big Tech behemoths trickle into the hands of their two (cold) warring parent countries, or maybe even nefarious entities within them?
There’s plenty of precedence for this. Edward Snowden exposed how the US National Security Agency (NSA) used the cover of the Patriot Act and the threat of terrorism to snoop on its own citizens.
Additionally, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal showed how the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica was able to illegally obtain the data of more than 87 million Facebook users. Among other things, they used this data to sway voter sentiment during the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum.
In China, the separation between corporation and state is becoming increasingly illusory and, therefore, it is not inconceivable that their Big Tech-derived data is being shared with the government.
Reports say that Communist Party cells are considered mandatory in many companies, with their business leaders expected to follow a “one post, double duty” principle, which expects them to act in the best interest of both the company and the Communist Party.
Knowledge of many important and intimate facets of Malaysians’ lives by these US and Chinese Big Tech companies – and by extension, their governments – coupled with their ability to influence these, will give them monumental leverage, the likes of which have never before been seen in human history.
The US, China and their Big Tech tentacles will know Malaysians more intimately than the Malaysian government could ever hope to. This could allow them to mould our public opinion, moderate the information we have access to and maybe even sideline local politicians that they don’t think would serve the interests of the US or China.
We’re entering an unprecedented era of digital colonialism – an era where the levers of control are likely to gradually tilt away from the Malaysian government towards the US and Chinese governments.
In this new era, would the Malaysian government be expected to toe the line drawn by the US or China? Would it choose to risk moving closer to Scylla or to Charybdis? And would it run the risk of being supplanted if it doesn’t?
A watershed moment that demonstrated the weight that Big Tech is willing to and capable of throwing around was the recent Google-Australia spat. When Australian lawmakers proposed a bill that would force Google to pay Australian publishers for news content, Google threatened to stop providing its service in the country.
This would leave Australians – 95% of whom rely on Google’s search engine – in the lurch and desperately searching for alternatives. This makes me wonder: If Malaysia does something that irks Google or any of the other Big Tech companies, would it face similar repercussions?
Considering the fact that Malaysia’s GDP is only around a quarter of Australia’s, which in turn is eclipsed by Google’s valuation, I don’t see how Malaysia could escape such a predicament.
And as time goes by, Malaysians’ overdependence on foreign Big Tech will only grow deeper. To combat this, it’s probably time for the Malaysian government to advocate, even incentivise, the use of privacy-centric Big Tech alternatives such as ProtonMail, DuckDuckGo and Signal.
Maybe it’s about time the government started thinking of the services that Big Tech provides the way it regards electricity and water today – as public utilities.
In any case, if it doesn’t have a contingency plan in place, the government’s gradual path to obsolescence – or arguably worse, subservience – is almost certain.
By K. Kathirgugan
#RobertReview: 9 | 10
Published: 16th February 2021.
Digital Colonization: How China-US Tech Cold War Will Impact Your Country