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Is There Any Way To Rein In The Power Of Big Tech?

A new biography of the Tesla, X (formerly Twitter) and Space X boss reveals that Elon Musk prevented the Ukrainian army from attacking the Russian fleet in Crimea last year, by limiting the beam of his Starlink satellites. Unchecked power is a problem.

Black-and-white portrait of Elon Musk, with lines of code in the background

AI-generated portrait of Elon Musk

Pierre Haski

This article was updated Sept. 14, 2023 at 12:20 p.m


PARIS — Nothing Elon Musk does leaves us indifferent. The billionaire is often admired for his audacity, and regularly criticized for his attitude and some of his decisions.

A biography of the founder and CEO of Tesla and Space X, came out today in the United States — 688 pages published by Simon & Schuster and written by William Isaacson (the renowned biographer of Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein).

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One revelation from this book is making headlines, and it's a big one. Elon Musk — brace yourselves — prevented the Ukrainian army from destroying the Russian Black Sea fleet last year.

A bit of context: Starlink, the communications and internet satellite constellation owned by Musk, initially enabled Ukraine to escape Russian blackout attempts.

But when the Ukrainian army decided to send naval drones to destroy Russian ships anchored in Crimea, it found that the signal was blocked. And Starlink refused to extend it to Crimea, because, according to Issacson, Musk feared it would trigger World War III.

It's dizzying, and raises serious questions.

A geopolitical actor

First, the question of responsibility — where does Elon Musk get the legitimacy to decide what the Ukrainian army can and cannot do? He has the technology, which makes him a participant, but does he have the right to decide how a war should be fought? Isaacson doesn't say whether this decision was coordinated with the U.S. administration, which should be noted.

He has neither the rights or responsibilities of state actors.

This is the first time that a private contractor has had so much influence. As cyber-power specialist Asma Mhalla points out, Musk has become, whether we like it or not, a "geopolitical actor."

But he has neither the rights or responsibilities of state actors in conflicts, nor the freedom of non-governmental organizations. Starlink, or any other brand in the Musk universe, has its own interests.

Taiwan, for example, is scrutinizing the war in Ukraine to prepare for a possible Chinese invasion. Taiwan has also realized that Starlink is not to be counted on because Tesla, Musk's other brand, has a strong presence in China. The entrepreneur will do nothing that could displease Beijing.

Photo of \u200bSpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying 53 Starlink internet satellites

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying 53 Starlink internet satellites

Gene Blevins/ZUMA

A brilliant mind

So how do we deal with such a figure? It's uncharted territory.

On Wednesday, Musk and other tech heavyweights, like Meta's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai, met with U.S. lawmakers behind closed doors to discuss artificial intelligence — another subject of keen interest for the business magnate. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Musk said there was "overwhelming consensus" over the need for a regulator to ensure the safe use of AI.

Elon Musk does as he pleases, as we can see from the irresponsible way in which he manages the social network X, previously known as Twitter, even though it continues to be a crucial way for information in the world to circulate.

After following Musk for two years, Isaacson asks two hard-hitting questions about the 58-year-old's whimsical personality. To be truly innovative, must one be half-mad , or even a genius? And how do you stop such a brilliant mind from spiraling out of control?

The considerable power accumulated by Musk, but also by other tech giants, perhaps less flamboyant, is such that it must be taken into account by governments around the world: And so until further notice, they remain the only legitimate source of governance. The question is whether it may already be too late.

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