October 11, 2023

LeadershipLimited Government

Elon Musk’s Refusal to Advance War Raises Questions Around Private Tech

By: Caleb Larson

The massive role that a private American tech corporation can have on American foreign policy is now clear. Through a simple network connection, tech companies can have enough influence to set the stage for global thermonuclear war. Should private companies have such an outsized ability to further their own political agendas or those of their host nations? If they should not, is there even anything that can be done to stop them? Elon Musk’s recent Starlink incident has displayed the power of modern technology companies and presents difficult questions around the role of private tech firms in foreign relations and warfare.

It is hard to say exactly what state the world would be in today if Elon Musk had enabled the Starlink satellite internet service over Crimea last year. By not doing so, Musk prevented the Ukrainian submarine drone attack on the Russian fleet stationed in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol. Tensions are heightening as the war in Ukraine continues, and nuclear retaliation has been threatened if such an attack were to take place. Odds are very likely that the world would be in a less stable predicament if Musk had succumbed to the Ukrainian demands to provide network connections for their attack. He deserves credit for his unwillingness to become an accessory to escalating the war into a nuclear phase.

Starlink had been utilized for Ukrainian offensive operations involving drones until SpaceX put a stop to it in February of this year. SpaceX had given Ukraine the technology to support “humanitarian purposes”, but the company soon found that the Ukrainian military had greater ambitions for the technology. SpaceX’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, said that they had not anticipated it to be used in such a way. Given the stakes of the war and the lack of tangible Ukrainian victories, perhaps the SpaceX team should have thought that through.

SpaceX is hardly the first American tech company to participate to some degree in supporting Ukraine in the war effort. To hurt Russia, Amazon suspended Prime video services and shipping, Apple removed Apple Pay alongside sales of its products, and Google ended its advertising business. While these actions are not combat related, they do illustrate a desire to harm Russia’s economy which directly affects wartime mobilization. Microsoft announced it would be prioritizing the cybersecurity within Ukraine; a position that could involve the company in some murky situations as the relationship between cyber operations and traditional warfare is still being defined.

These companies are liable to follow sanctions imposed by the United States government, but they have certainly been vocal about their support. If the U.S. were to drop the sanctions and cease involvement in supporting Ukraine, would these companies continue their boycotts? Would their actions be able to spark future conflict between Russia and the United States if Russia determined they are acting on behalf of their nation? The direction of America lies with its citizens and their elected representatives, but Big Tech may have an effective veto on their desires.

Elon Musk was able to successfully navigate the complexities that come with private company involvement in war. However, there may be future dilemmas involving tech companies that fail to avoid disaster. Big Tech controls much of the digital and online domain for not only America but also the entire globe. Big Tech has also been advancing their social and governance agendas quite clearly though their policies, from censoring oppositional opinions and uncomfortable facts to limiting platform access and digital presence. The ability of these companies to undermine foundational rights and conduct effectively wartime operations should be raising alarms in the minds of Americans looking to retain any semblance of representative government.