The Plain View
In 1942, smokers of one of the leading cigarette brands noticed a change in the packaging. The green background on Lucky Strike boxes was now white. The American Tobacco Company’s official explanation was that copper, used to produce the green pigment, was at a premium during wartime. To support the Allied troops, the cigarette maker “sacrificed” by abandoning the green dye. In what might be called midcentury virtue signaling, the firm rolled out a massive ad campaign with the slogan, “Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War.”
The current Russian invasion of Ukraine has offered a similar opportunity for a contemporary industry that has occasionally been compared to the tobacco cartel—Big Tech. Multiple times a day, we read about how technology companies ranging from trillionaire giants to startups are prioritizing wartime responsibilities and denying services to Russia or aiding Ukraine. Some of these moves have directly impacted the battlefield, if you extend the war theater to digital cyberstructure as well as the global fight for hearts and minds. The decisions of Meta, Twitter, Google, and Microsoft to block or constrain the Russian news agencies Sputnik and RT, for instance, represents an attempt to preemptively mitigate disinformation. Other measures fall in the category of an overall boycott of a country brutally attacking another without provocation, or offering aid to the disenfranchised. Apple, for instance, closed its stores in Moscow. Airbnb is offering free lodging to refugees. SpaceX is sending Starlink internet terminals to Ukraine. And just as the American Tobacco Company did in 1942, those launching such initiatives are making sure we know about it.
It’s heartening to see how almost all the Western world, except maybe Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump, is united in condemning Putin’s invasion, and that corporations by and large are making moves to back that up. Yet some of those decisions aren’t so clear cut in who they benefit, and what precedents they might establish. In some cases, their responses are state-requested, originating from the US, EU, or Ukraine itself. Those are hard to turn down. But companies like Meta, Twitter, and Google have spent years devising policies to guide their actions, and those rules were intended to be applied regardless of where political winds are blowing. I am reminded of the exuberance inside the company then called Facebook when its products helped power the Arab Spring. In the excitement of aligning with a liberation movement, Facebook’s leaders failed to see how the same protocols could later empower deadly misinformation in Myanmar and at the US Capitol.
Our big tech companies are so powerful that even actions that seem morally clear-cut can bite back later on. Take the question of how Facebook operates inside of Russia. Meta is defying Putin’s objections to fact-checking, and has blocked state-backed ads. In response, Russia itself is slowing down access to the platform. If Meta decided to pull Facebook from Russia altogether, would it be a punishment or a reward to Putin? Removal might signify a Zuckerbergian solidarity with the emerging corporate boycott, and also provide a means to fully shut down disinformation circulating on Cyrillic News Feeds. (Whoops, change that to “Feeds.”) But it would also preclude the possibility that Russians unhappy with Putin’s actions might organize protests, share stories of young soldiers at risk, or at least complain about the effects of sanctions.
Responding to a question I asked in a press call this week, Meta’s policy czar Nick Clegg shared how the company views such contradictions. “We are a private sector company, which runs apps or services, which happen to be relied upon by millions of people in Russia and Ukraine, at a moment of great distress and military conflict,” he said. “And also, we’re having demands made of us by governments in numerous different jurisdictions. That is quite a difficult balancing trick for us to strike.”
Maybe the best example of this conundrum in the tech world are the demands on the crypto community to deny services to Russians. If it doesn’t, the argument goes, cryptocurrencies will be the loophole by which Putin’s oligarchs will shelter their ill-gotten fortunes. But one of the pillars of crypto technology is that no state action can constrain the much-touted decentralized digital commerce. On one hand, it seems like a great idea to freeze the wallets of Russian kleptocrats, just as banks are doing with their offshore accounts. But doing the “right thing” in this case would be like pulling a weight-bearing Jenga piece out of a delicately balanced crypto architecture. If crypto is not amoral, is it really crypto? (So far, some crypto exchanges are holding out.)
While there may be no right answers for a lot of these questions, one truth shines through: These platforms are scarily intertwined in the body politic and the global economic machinery. And actions taken now, even with the best of intentions, might wind up repeated to our disadvantage. Cooperation with state-issued requests that skirt established corporate policies could set a troubling precedent.
In general, consumers should be wary of corporate actions taken in the guise of righteousness. Take Lucky Strike. Post-armistice, it came out that the tobacco company’s vaunted switch from copper pigment had actually been planned long before Pearl Harbor. Surveys had shown that its female customers didn’t like green. The war provided cover for something the company was intending to do anyway. So, as I page through the press releases of tech companies mobilized against Putin, my first question is, “Got a light?”