February 24, 2020


portrait photo of Alexis Wichowski and book cover for her new book, "The Information Trade"
Alexis Wichowski’s new book address how tech companies have evolved to become increasingly powerful “net-states.”
Alexis Wichowski, an adjunct associate professor of international and public affairs at SIPA, is the deputy chief technology officer for innovation for the City of New York. Wichowski and, among other positions previously served at the U.S. mission to the United Nations within the Department of State.

In her new book, The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World, Wichowski outlines how some tech companies have come to reach beyond their core technological offerings to assert themselves in a variety of spheres traditionally managed by national governments. Among these are defense, diplomacy, public infrastructure, and citizen services. In a recent conversation with SIPA News, Wichowski spoke about her book, her work for New York City, and why she enjoys teaching at SIPA.

You introduced the term “net-states” into the lexicon. What are net-states?

Net-states are, in essence, technology giants that have come to exert immense influence on the geopolitical, social, and personal worlds.

Technology companies are no longer a set of monolithic entities that just offer digital services: Companies like Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Tesla—those I describe as net-states—have morphed into an altogether different animal. Their power and financial reach rivals that of countries, their social capital is unrivaled, and they advance belief-driven digital services.

Their influence over our lives is undeniable and with their services extending into critical public services domain, unavoidable. In Wired, where I first outlined the rise of these net states, I wrote, “they exist largely online, enjoy international devotees, and advance belief-driven agendas that they pursue, at times, above, the law.”

How did this characterization of net-states come about?

Actually, it was a very specific event. Following the ISIS attacks on Paris in 2015, when ISIS’s organizing and recruiting on social media was revealed, the U.S. intelligence and military community, along with Twitter, was attempting to take down ISIS accounts. But the hacker collective Anonymous launched Operation ISIS, which was much more successful than a sophisticated military-led operation in bringing down these accounts.

In a similar vein, when Hurricane Maria came along in 2017, and FEMA’s response in Puerto Rico was appalling, Tesla stepped up to rebuild the island’s energy infrastructure with their power packs. Then came Google with their Project Loon to provide telecommunications and internet connectivity.

At the time, appropriate vocabulary to describe Twitter, Google, Facebook, and the new variables these entities were adding to national security, defense, and diplomacy, didn’t exist. They were neither nation-states nor non-state actors. That’s when I identified the contours of net-states and the new landscape in which they function.

How do net-states differ from other technology companies and what are the implications for users?

Critically, these tech companies are not viewing consumers of their products and services as mere users. The hacker ethos that draws a lot of people to the tech industry and their desire to build something good often influences the manner in which these companies function. For example, these companies sometimes protect users in ways that even governments fail to. This was the case when Microsoft questioned the jurisdiction of and refused to give the Department of Justice access to a user’s email.

They're not just looking at their bottom line. I mean, there is definitelyPR value to Apple refusing to engineer back doors—advertising that their security features are better for business. But another way you also see the belief-driven agendas in action is when employees of these companies take a stand. Take for example, how Google employees compelled Google to run out its contract with the Department of Defense because of the conviction that Google must not get involved with the defense industry.

In functioning this way, they have altered our role as consumers as well. By conferring— and withholding—rights to all consumers regardless of geographical location, by providing indispensable digital and physical services that transform our experiences as citizens, they have transformed us into hybrid citizen-users. I explore this in more detail in my book.

What has the role of the government been historically in the context of net-states’ rise, and what should it be going forward?

I think it's very difficult for governments to catch up with what's happened because there was this sense for a long time that the internet was going to be a purely democratizing force, a force for good. But around the time of Cambridge Analytica [the company that, in 2018, was revealed to have illicitly harvested Facebook users’ personal data for political advertising], when people realized that technology was being weaponized, the government was not hungry to get involved in this new kind of warfare. They were still thinking of warfare in a traditional sense.

Now, I think, there is a little fear about having missed the window to engage—in some cases because of ignorance about the technology and in others because of true uncertainty [about how to move forward]. But this is the nature of digital economy; it’s difficult to visualize appropriate positioning for guardrails to balance some tradeoffs. Sometimes I think that the answer might be that they're movable guardrails, and that's hard for governments to wrap their heads around.

Still, in this new complex environment governments must be meaningfully involved in shaping what the response should be. They must forge effective diplomatic relationships  with these companies, and not just economic relationships. Most importantly, even with respect to our relationship with net-states, governments must not fail in their duty towards us, the citizens.

You propose a Declaration of Citizen-User Rights to renegotiate the manner in which people engage with net-states. Why this new declaration and what does it contend?

It is critical that we negotiate a better deal for ourselves, that we define what is valuable and reclaim our power over it. As of now, there is no user-centric declaration for protection of citizen-users’ online activity. Terms of service are focused on protecting companies from liability: They change regularly, are lengthy and complicated, and have no mechanism for user input. Even though the Digital Geneva Convention outlines rights for users, this too is done by the net states. These are significant in their own right as they are diplomatic agreements between nation-states, net states, academic institutions, and NGOs. But a simple, accessible mechanism where citizens are represented and can influence the direction that these net states pursue without being overwhelmed is needed.

To achieve this, I outline fundamental rights, articulated in the form of three basic principles, for users to negotiate their terms of engagement with net-states and to protect against technology’s overreach into their lives: Citizen-users have a right to choose how to pay for their content privacy, a right to know how their data is being used, and a right to control the data they produce.

Net states must agree to these principles in exchange for our businesses, our data, and indeed our attention. Compelling the ecosystem to function under the conditions of these principles will readjust the equilibrium of digital ecosystem in the favour of the users.

Why is literacy about practices of net-states important? Why should the average user care?

We have so many touch points with these companies that we may not even be aware of. Even though we're often talking about these big six companies, they are parent companies that have acquired over 600 other companies. Their attitudes towards user data on all the platforms they own or control are essentially the same, and they are not favorable to the user.

So I think it's really important that people understand when they are doing business online, whether it's using social media or making purchases, that the influence of these companies extends far beyond what might be visible on the surface. And precisely because of this, it is important to pay attention to their practices and hold them accountable.

What does your current work—as a deputy CTO in the New York City Mayors’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer—entail?

As deputy chief technology officer for innovation, I lead a team that, first, consults with government agency partners on how to adopt new technology or innovative practices so they can improve service delivery and policy development, and second, runs open competitions, or challenges, asking applicants from around the world to submit novel, tech-based solutions to real-world problems in New York City.

Challenge winners get exposure to and feedback from venture capital and agency judges, the chance for awards of up to $20,000, and the opportunity to partner with the city to test their solution. Frankly, it's an amazing job that offers opportunities to both learn about the capabilities of emerging technologies and to pilot-test them with problems affecting real people.

What’s the relationship between your work in the government and your work as a SIPA professor?

In government, you do important work but you very rarely have an opportunity to reflect on what you're doing. Sometimes the bureaucracy can be a real grind, and it can be very challenging not to lose your spirit. The stereotype of the burnt-out bureaucrat can be a real thing when you can’t remember that your work is serving people and benefiting society.

Teaching helps me remember that and keeps me inspired. While teaching you talk about the work and why it matters. I also love the energy of young people at SIPA. Students here are motivated about making change happen and I think it is critical to aid them by training them to effectively navigate bureaucracy.

What are you teaching right now?

In the spring I teach Technology, National Security and Citizen, which looks at the power dynamics between tech companies, nation-states, non-state actors, and citizens and how they use technological tools to mobilize. We study privacy issues, data protection, surveillance, security, and the frustrations and tensions in resolving certain trade-offs and achieving desirable policy.

A lot of security officials are frustrated at the fact that they can't get access to the same kind of data that Facebook has access to, for instance, because Facebook doesn't need a warrant to collect your data, but the FBI does.

In the fall I teach E-Government and Digital Diplomacy, which is more focused on how technological advances have changed the nature of diplomacy, and on the tactical and operational functionality of how you get things done in government and effect change.

This interview, conducted by Shalini Seetharam MPA ’20, has been condensed and edited for clarity.