Just as every child attending school in England learns about the fateful year of 1066 – the last time England was successfully invaded by a foreign power – so Chinese youngsters learn about the “unequal treaties“. In essence, in the 19th Century various European powers, chief among them the UK and France, took disproportionate advantage of China’s then weakened state after the so-called Opium Wars. They extracted unreasonable reparations, took land and also insisted on unfair trading rights. This was the time when Hong Kong became a British colony, by virtue of a lease which only ended in 1997.
The unequal treaties later became a potent political driver in developing Chinese nationalism. It fuels Chinese attitudes towards the West even to this day. Perhaps it is going too far to say that the emergence of China as a global power is in any sense driven by a desire for payback but I know some who do not think that idea too fanciful. A famous search engine tells me the origins of the phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold” are disputed but whoever eventually gets the credit they were obviously an acute observer of human nature.
I appreciate the difference in scale and scope but I am nevertheless often driven back to thinking about the analogous unequal weight of arms which exists right now as between big tech companies, individual consumers and civil society, not to mention governments of nation-states – those “annoying” but extremely tenacious, anachronistic entities which continue to exert such an extraordinary grip on people’s loyalties and sentiments.
The plutocratic demi-gods of Silicon Valley promised everyone they would make the world a better place. Full stop. And, yes, I can order my groceries online, get cheap flights, talk to my relations in San Diego. Yet there is all that other stuff. That was never part of the advertised deal.
The legal immunities online businesses were given at the optimistic birth of the internet experiment created the perfect conditions for online businesses to try anything and everything to find new ways of making money, they call it “innovation”, while simultaneously removing any sense of urgency in respect of eliminating evil. The rising tide that was reflected in massive enthusiasm for the new technology floated many ships that might otherwise not have made it out of the harbour under an even marginally less permissive regime. There is no point speculating about what would have happened if things had been ordered differently. They weren’t.
The ability and obvious willingness of online businesses to hop between jurisdictions both to minimise tax liabilities and throw up a smokescreen of obfuscatory alleged difficulties which ultimately rely upon a weak to non-existent or asynchronous international legal framework, stoke resentments that sooner, or later, probably sooner, will find a way to express themselves. It may not be pretty. What I am not quite sure of is whether or not it is already too late. Is the die cast?
I fear many companies have concluded that it is so they will not change their ways. They will just try to keep the merry-go-round turning for as long as they can.
Accountability to independent agencies and full or at any rate much fuller transparency are going to be the new watchwords. Big tech knows this but sufficient unto the hour is the evil thereof. And if they light candles to the gods of uncertain fortune, who knows?