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Six Ways Big Tech Manifests Its ‘Soft Power’

Executive Summary. We have identified six trends that are our interpretation of how Big Tech has manifested soft power in Denmark over the past decade; what they have achieved and where their focus lies now. This interpretation is neither systematic nor normative, but we hope it can help shed light on what we need to be aware of.

The first trend is partly due to the fact that in Denmark we have a high degree of trust in each other and in public institutions. Therefore, getting the Danish public sector to buy into you as a company makes sense, which is the first trend. It can act as a seal of approval and give the impression that ‘it’s probably cleared and legal and can be used in the local community’. For example, if a local business center promotes Google Analytics as they have done in the municipality of Næstved, it may be because the Danish Business Authority has approved the tool. If schools use Google, then it’s probably not only a legal but also a good and necessary solution. And if a minister cuts the red ribbon for a very large quantum investment from Microsoft, then those pictures are some of the best PR a company can get. We can fully trust this company when Microsoft sits at the table in the public Danish Digitisation Council.

“What often happens when Big Tech collaborates with the public sector is that the former positions itself as an extra-governmental and unavoidable actor in maintaining the public sector – rather than a private player that needs to make money,” Danish researcher Lucas Cone points out.

According to Cone, Big Tech has shifted its narrative from disruption and ‘break things’ to ‘infrastructure’. This is the second trend. Microsoft and Amazon, for example, house a number of quantum companies in their cloud. And Google has succeeded in articulating itself as equal to digitalisation, which was underlined when the Danish Data Protection Agency in 2022 declared Google Analytics illegal from the outset. IT-Branchen said: The Danish Data Protection Agency risks turning off the Internet. Politicians publish their news on Facebook, the police communicate via Twitter, and children, parents, and teachers communicate on Aula, which stores its data with Amazon Web Services. Google and Microsoft can be said to share the market for Danish primary schools.

This hasn’t come out of the blue. A decade ago, it was representatives from the public sector, including KL (Local Government Denmark) and private business people who traveled to Silicon Valley or attended courses at SingularityU, the Danish branch of Silicon Valley’s Singularity University (the only foreign branch). They preached ‘exponential growth’ and ‘disruption’, and the government set up a Disruption Council in 2017 without any debate on the fact that disruption means re-caliber (turning society upside down). The phenomenon was covered nicely by Facebook’s early slogan ‘Move Fast and Break Things’.

For many years, Big Tech has been successful in organising lunches and mini-events where experts and press are invited, perhaps to meet one of their ‘hot shots’, and Big Tech representatives try to write speeches for or against new legislation alongside recognised experts to either side with citizens or get a stamp of approval. They find common causes with NGOs or think tanks, for example. And of course, the public gets excited when many small organisations, schools, and businesses receive money from the big American tech company, as is the case in Odense. It can be about financial support, relationship building, informal networking, and maybe even a kind of cosy culture – and that’s the third trend. This relationship building is also attempted by giving researchers so-called unrestricted gifts, not to influence the research, but for knowledge sharing and to be ‘seen’ with them. In recent years, a critical understanding of Big Tech has flourished, which can be seen in the government’s White Paper on Tech Giants.

Therefore, it can also be beneficial for Big Tech to go public or talk to politicians under different names or in disguise of other organisations – which can be so-called shadow organisations, for example. This is the fourth trend and one of the big problems in the EU, according to MEP Christel Schaldemose. If it’s someone from Google calling to set up a meeting about a case, you might pay extra attention to the financial interests, but if it’s an organisation with a name that sounds like a non-profit, your guard is down. Big Tech also operates shadow organisations in Denmark. We describe one, the ‘European Independent Media Publishers’, EIMP, of which the Danish trade organisation Nye Medier is a member. The director of EIMP is a Google-paid consultant. Another shadowy organisation is former Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s ‘Copenhagen Democracy Summit’, which is closely intertwined with Big Tech. A number of digital rights organisations also receive money from Big Tech without being shadow organisations, such as the American digital rights organisation Access Now, which the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other countries also support. According to an interview with Corporate Europe, Big Tech may have an interest in becoming part of these groups in order to influence the narratives from within.

Another reason why vigilance is needed is that Big Tech has successfully labeled itself as ethically responsible. This is what we see as a form of ethics washing and constitutes the fifth trend. Microsoft has been used as a model of data ethics by the Data Ethics Council and the Council for Digital Security, among others. But with the launch of OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT, which was only possible with the help of Microsoft, which has the capacity for such a venture, the tech giant set off a worldwide AI race, whereby the responsible thing about Microsoft has evaporated in the eyes of many. But Microsoft’s software is in many places in the Danish public administration’s computers, and on about half of primary school children’s computers. Danish CEO Nanna Bule of Microsoft was appointed chairman of the government’s Digitalisation Council (she has since moved to Goldmann Sachs).

The same goes for Big Tech’s charm offensive towards the young segment of society, which is the last trend we have identified. Today’s children and young people are tomorrow’s consumers. While this in itself is not new, Microsoft and Google are now sitting on the infrastructure of primary schools, and the rollout has been massive over the last decade. Danish Ph.D. students also leave their studies for a period of time to work for Big Tech companies either here or in the US for a high salary. And young people have been sent to Silicon Valley as part of Facebook’s ‘Future Squad’ via Ungdomsbureauet. Young people are the consumers and decision-makers of tomorrow, and it makes sense from a business perspective to get young citizens and consumers on board in your universe.

Get the full report Big Tech’s Soft Power