One of the biggest surprises uncovered by the war in Ukraine is how great an impact internet technology companies will have on war in the future. The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip reports:
In February, Ukraine passed a law allowing private cloud providers to host government data outside its borders, then struck contracts with Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google.
Days later Russia invaded, and a missile destroyed a data center in Kyiv where information had been stored, said Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation. “All of the backups were already transported to other European countries and no damage was done,” he said.
Big tech companies face intensifying criticism at home over their influence in the marketplace and public square. But at the same time their role in Ukraine shows how they are becoming a key asset in the West’s rivalry with Russia and China.
Ukraine shares none of the ambivalence toward big tech of its Western counterparts. It awarded Google a peace prize for its help securing Ukrainian computer systems against Russian cyberattacks and for cutting some business ties to Russia. It later gave AWS and Microsoft similar awards.
In an interview in Davos, Switzerland, this past May, Mr. Fedorov said technology comes in two ideological paradigms. In the first, he said through a translator, “data are property of citizens themselves. The other paradigm looks at those data as the property of the state. This second paradigm, you can find it in Russia, in China.” Ukraine is throwing in its lot with the first paradigm, and that is reflected in the companies with which it does business.
Technology is often thought of as apolitical: Semiconductors work the same way in democratic U.S. and autocratic China. Yet how tech companies, especially in services such as social media and cloud computing, operate abroad might reflect the values and laws of their home country.
For example, social-media companies such as Google’s YouTube, Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook and Twitter Inc. are regularly pressed to take down or leave up certain content but are seldom ordered to do so by the U.S. government. When foreign governments do, they often resist.
Last year India’s government demanded Twitter take down posts protesting its agricultural policies. Twitter fought the order; the government responded by encouraging users to shift to Koo, an Indian microblogging platform that competes with Twitter. Koo’s co-founder has said it believes in cooperating with takedown requests by governments and regulators.
Google has been fined by Russia for failing to take down content, for example for how it refers to the war in Ukraine. By contrast Yandex, a Russia competitor, doesn’t include content in its news aggregator from unapproved sources.
When Google does take down content, it discloses the requests in regular reports. Such transparency is rare outside the U.S., said Shreya Tewari of the Lumen Project, a Harvard University-based nonprofit that promotes transparency about online content removal. She attributes that to the internet developing “in the U.S. within the environment of the First Amendment and commitment to freedom of speech.”
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