What happens when a company commands a country? Tech giants such as Facebook, Amazon and Google increase their markets and product offerings like empires expanding their spheres of influence. Yet in a society where the government is increasing attempts to reign in and battle against the whims of such omnipresent firms, when can we decree that a business has overstepped?
The past presents a glaring example. The East India Company (EIC), originally formed to handle British trade with India and the East Indies, eventually came to dominate the sub-continent and start a war with China over the opium trade. Its rule saw millions of indigenous people suffer and starve at the expense of profit — allegations similarly lodged at firms such as Facebook, which is criticized for criminally underpaying the contractors to which it outsources its more gruesome work, such as PTSD-inducing content moderation.
Watching Mark Zuckerberg’s recent congressional testimony, one couldn’t help but be reminded of the EIC’s own attitude when under government review. The arrogance of Zuckerberg, who evaded inquiries concerning the possible malefic influences of Facebook’s various activities and provoked congressional ire, was reminiscent of Robert Clive’s now infamous testimony before Parliament in 1773. Clive, an EIC general who gained vast and dubious riches during his Indian exploits, showed little remorse. When asked if he had overstepped in his attempts at self-enrichment, he famously replied: “By God, Mr. Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation.” Zuckerberg’s nonchalant refusal to commit to content moderation, asserting that his abilities would best be used elsewhere, provides a painful parallel to Clive’s own hubris.
For the modern giants to follow in the EIC’s path is not inconceivable. The EIC established two schools to maintain its private empire: the Addiscombe Military Seminary to staff its private army and the grandiose East India Company College to train the “writers” who administered the company’s global ventures. With the increasingly cutthroat competition surrounding employment at such firms, is it that far-fetched to imagine, some day in the future, such firms establishing feeder programs, if not full-fledged colleges, to train their ever-expanding armies of engineers and programmers?
The news that Amazon’s new headquarters will include space for a family shelter was seen as long overdue philanthropy by a company thought to bear much responsibility for Seattle’s housing crisis. However, more concerning is that a company, instead of righting its own wrongs, is stepping in to provide a service traditionally done by the government. What does it say about our country that these firms are creating not just their own currencies, but effectively their own worlds? As accusations of antitrust behavior are lobbed against such firms, one is left wondering what type of disaster it will take before the firms that dominate our economy and daily lives suddenly find themselves unable to manage the empires they’ve carved out for themselves. For the EIC, it was the Indian Mutiny of 1857, which saw the company lose control over India and proved its inability to effectively govern a state. For Google, Facebook and the cabal of other giants, one can’t help but shudder at the question of what will end their dominance.