First there was Apple vs. the FBI about decrypting iPhone data. As Snowden put it:
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) February 17, 2016
Now Microsoft is suing the US Justice department over secrecy orders that the government says it needs to do its job, and that in the view of Microsoft should not exist to the extent they do.
In my view, these court skirmishes are only the beginnings of a major brewing conflict. Some years ago, I identified some “megatrends” that I was expecting to play out over the next decade or two. “Increasing competition between nation states and the big tech platform companies” was one of them. I owe Neal Stephenson and his brilliant novel Snow Crash, where, to my knowledge, he first identified this. It may not be Hong Kong chain stores or pizza franchises as in his novel; but by virtue of what they do, how they engage with customers world-wide, and by how those customers want to be served, the big tech companies are on a collision course with governments world-wide. It is very well possible in my view, that like in Snow Crash, some enterprises over the next decade or two will become souvereign zones like nation states for all intents and purposes. Which has a certain appeal, until you realize that the technology industry is a democracy-free zone, and not even due process exists.
In other contexts, I would say “bring the popcorn” to watch what promises to be an epic conflict. But this is really important, with serious ramifications for all of us and our children. Imagine either outcome (of the entire conflict, not any particular battle): what would it mean if the tech companies won, and today’s governments were soundly defeated? Or the tech companies were defeated conclusively? I don’t think either outcome is a good one. And while the conflict goes on, people have to choose sides, which is not going to help in many different ways.
So I expect more court battles like these ones, mostly in the US but also in other “free” countries. A little down the road I expect more Lavabit-type voluntary shutdowns of companies (if the companies are small). Large companies don’t really have that option. Instead, they will need to move from one jurisdiction to another if all other avenues have been exhausted. Google pulling out of China is one thing. A big tech company pulling out of a Western democracy would be an entirely different matter, but I’m afraid that’s the direction this is going.