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Elon Musk, greeted in Israel as a head of state: The geopolitics of Big Tech

The tycoon has handed over control of Starlink in Gaza to the Netanyahu government as part of an operation to clean up his image that highlights his role as a strategic actor

Elon Musk en Israel
Elon Musk (center) and Benjamin Netanyahu (right), this Monday in Kfar Aza.Handout (Getty Images)
Miguel Jiménez

Elon Musk was greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this Monday in Israel, where the entrepreneur was treated like a head of state or government. Musk had traveled there to clean up his image after major advertisers quit his social network X (formerly Twitter) due to ads showing up next to pro-Nazi content; the tycoon was also criticized for a message supporting white nationalist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In exchange for the certificate of good conduct, Musk handed over control of his Starlink communications network in Gaza to the Israeli government. The way in which Musk rubs shoulders with world leaders is the best exponent of the position of power that big technology has achieved in world geopolitics, especially since the war in Ukraine. This intersection between strategic and business interests has raised some concerns.

“Tech companies’ geopolitical role is obvious in the war in Ukraine, shattering the myth that platforms such as Facebook, Google, and YouTube are neutral actors,” writes Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor of security at Carnegie Mellon University, in an article published by the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs. Microsoft has protected Ukraine from cyberattacks and Google has removed images of Ukraine from its open-source maps, but it has undoubtedly been Musk’s Starlink satellite network, integrated into SpaceX, which has had a more decisive role in maintaining internet connectivity in Ukraine.

Commercial interests and geopolitics have historically gone hand in hand, and wars for economic reasons have their roots in ancient times. The fight for resources and territory precedes religious, cultural or ideological conflicts. Nor is the influence of companies on the foreign policy of powers or business and economic diplomacy new. In the current situation there are, however, novelties of form and substance.

Instead of making behind-the-scenes moves, Musk frequently tweets his ideas impulsively, without any filters. But there is also a difference of substance: in the past, giants like the Dutch East India Company — which monopolized trade routes in the 17th and 18th centuries and whose market value in real terms would be higher than Alphabet, Apple, Meta, Amazon, and Microsoft put together — were supervised by their governments, explains Kurth Cronin. “Not so today. The autonomy of today’s major tech companies makes them unusual, and many companies are innovating faster than government bureaucracies can manage.”

Innovation in space

Space is just one example of that innovation. SpaceX (owned by Musk) and Blue Origin (controlled by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon) are at the forefront, and the U.S. government has subcontracted them in its bid to return to the Moon. Bezos was planning a satellite network to compete with Starlink, but when the war in Ukraine began, the only person capable of guaranteeing connectivity in the territory was Musk: “The Starlink service is already active in Ukraine. More terminals on the way,” the tycoon tweeted on February 26, 2022 in response to a senior official in the Kyiv government.

Musk rejected a request last year for his Starlink satellites to facilitate a Ukrainian attack on Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet. “If I had accepted their request, SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and an escalation of the conflict,” the magnate explained when the story broke. His biographer, Walter Isaacson, assured EL PAÍS in September that as a result of that incident, Musk “realized that he should not have so much power.”

Days after meeting with Netanyahu in California in September, Musk met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in New York to discuss the possible opening of a Tesla factory. This month, he participated in a meeting in San Francisco with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which was also attended by Apple boss Tim Cook. Some of these meetings are part of traditional business diplomacy, which deals with investments, legal assurances and new markets. China is vital for Apple and Tesla. The question is what happens if the business interests of technology companies intersect with Washington’s diplomatic priorities. Would Musk confront Beijing by giving internet access via Starlink to Taiwan in the event of a conflict?

At the moment, Musk has reached a “principle understanding” with the Israeli government, under which Starlink satellite units can only be operated in Israel with the approval of the Israeli Ministry of Communications, including the Gaza Strip. Minister Shlomo Karhi congratulated him for this on X: “This understanding is vital, as is it for everyone who desires a better world, free of evil and free of anti-Semitism, for our children’s sake.” As the owner of X, Musk also has a major influence in shaping global public opinion, as do other tech companies such as Meta (owner of Facebook and Instagram), which signed up former U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in 2018 to head its global affairs and communications office when the Cambridge Analytica scandal exploded.

The United States has limited China’s access to high-powered American microprocessors, but the new diplomatic-technological front is artificial intelligence, where companies are ahead of governments. Sam Altman, the head of OpenAI (fired and reinstated in just five days) has traveled the world as an ambassador of this new technology. He has been in Britain this month with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whom he already saw on a previous tour in May that included a stop in Spain to meet with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

Shortly before that, Altman had been to the White House with the CEOs of Alphabet, Sundar Pichai; Microsoft, Satya Nadella, and Anthropic, Dario Amodei, for a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris, which President Biden also attended. A month ago, Biden dusted off an old law from the days of the Korean War (1950-1953) to approve a decree that forces technology companies to notify the U.S. government of any advance that could pose a “serious risk to national security.”

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