When companies have more influence than countries

Apple recently hit a market cap of $3 trillion only two years after it crossed the $2 trillion mark. Before that, it had taken more than 40 years to make it to $1 trillion. The company recorded revenue of almost $400 billion last year.

If Apple were a country, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, its revenue would rank it at No. 50 on the list of countries ranked by GDP. While it’d lag the likes of the U.S., France and Egypt, as a country, Apple would produce more wealth than Norway, Portugal or Greece, and only slightly less than Hong Kong, Peru or Israel.

The sheer power of a company like Apple is unlike anything the world has ever seen. It has a rapidly growing footprint in places you might not immediately associate with the iPhone maker, including finance (Apple Card, Apple Pay, and even a high-interest savings account), health and, of course, communications.

It also has a huge storage and processing business in the form of its iCloud products. And don’t forget that it produces high-end TV shows and movies for its Apple TV+ service, and while Apple Music rarely makes headlines these days, it has 88 million subscribers. I’m not even going to bother mentioning the 1.4 billion people who use iPhones.

Those numbers are wild: If the 88 million Apple Music subscribers were to form their own country, it’d be the 17th most populous country in the world.

Apple wields an extraordinary amount of political power over the future of, yes, technology (grumble, grumble), as well as many other aspects of our lives. I genuinely believe that — crazy price tag notwithstanding — by showing off its Vision Pro AR headset, the company has played a huge role in reshaping the entire AR industry.

Facebook’s cultural imperialism

Other companies are extraordinarily powerful as well. With the exception of TikTok, most major social media sites are based in the U.S. and ruled with American sensibilities, such as the country’s fervor around the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech.

That means the norms and habits that apply in the U.S. are generally extended as site-wide rules on these social media networks. For its almost 3 billion active users, Facebook decides what’s appropriate and what isn’t; in effect, its rules are shaping the new wave of cultural imperialism. To point to a specific example: Facebook’s rules sometimes are too lax for certain countries. In Austria and Germany, for example, it’s illegal to deny the Holocaust, which landed Facebook in hot water when its rules around free speech led to people saying whatever they wanted to.

Facebook might be too unrestricted for some countries, but the opposite can also be true. For some reason, this fair land of the United States is terrified of nipples (but only female-presenting ones) and has generally banned them from social media. That might work in the U.S., but there are several countries where casual nudity is a lot more common, and the people who live there are beholden to what they may perceive as needlessly restrictive rules from Facebook.

Of course, many such rules are chaotic and confusing at best. Trans folks’ nipples were somehow confusing things, and suddenly nipples that were feeding babies were OK. Facebook has been asked to overhaul its Byzantine ruleset, but there’s still a fair amount of confusion about the site’s somewhat arbitrary decisions and enforcement of its rules.

All of that is to say that when a site has 3 billion users, it’s twice as populous as the world’s most heavily populated countries (India and China both have around 1.4 billion people. The U.S. is a distant third with about 300 million). Facebook’s rules apply to people in every country, whether or not that makes any sense culturally.

In terms of advertising, the platform has worked to increase its transparency with its “Why am I seeing this ad?” initiative, which is arguably a step in the right direction.

And then there’s Google

Google is everywhere, and between all of its services that are used commonly (search, YouTube, Gmail, Drive, Maps and Calendar), it has the potential to know more about its users than any other company in the world.

Google probably has good checks and balances on who can see what data (I hope), but it’s pretty scary to think how much someone with access to all of Google’s databases would know about me and just about every other person in the world. The search engine isn’t immune to data breaches; its Google Fi product was recently the victim of hackers stealing millions of customers’ worth of data.

Hopefully there’s some sort of system in place that ensures nobody can access the entire Google dataset if it were to be acquired. If I were a rogue foreign state with $1.5 trillion of pocket change, the company would be a pretty tempting target.

Companies like Google, Apple and Facebook have boards of directors and governance policies. If they make particularly egregious mistakes, a government might haul its leadership to a court or its governing body. However, there is remarkably little oversight over these country-sized companies that we trust with our data and lives.

Trust and incentives

Trust is the key word here. If we didn’t trust the Apples and Googles of the world to treat our data with discretion and safe security protocols, we would stop using them pretty much immediately. Or would we?

To answer that, we only need to look back. Sadly, the history of tech shows that network effects can prove tremendously powerful, even when companies show that they cannot be trusted with our vital data (I’m looking at you, Equifax).

I trust Apple to keep my data safe because it has the biggest incentive to do so. The company makes its money off selling hardware — around $200 billion of its revenue came from sales of iPhones alone, followed by $40 billion from its Mac laptops and computers, $40 billion from accessories (AirPods, Apple Watch, etc.), $30 billion from iPad sales, and $80 billion from “services” such as the App Store.

Apple, therefore, has a very good incentive to keep my data safe: Trust, security and safety runs deep in the company’s veins. Or so it appears from the outside, at least.

Google’s business model is very different. More than 75% of its revenue comes from various types of advertising (search, network and YouTube ads), which means its incentives are different: For Google, you’re not the customer — you are the product. It sells your eyeballs to the highest bidder. Still, as a company, it has a relatively decent security track record.

Facebook? Don’t make me laugh. As a company, morally, it stinks. Facebook’s users are its product, and the company has drawn an appropriate amount of flack over the past couple U.S. presidential elections. And who could forget the Cambridge Analytica scandal?

I am still bemused whenever I see the end-to-end encryption advertising banners for WhatsApp. Sure, the messages may be end-to-end encrypted, but it’s hardly a good sign that the FBI is very excited about WhatsApp and the live, real-time data on its users.

So, who can we trust?

Other social media sites are far sleazier overall. When Elon Musk bought Twitter, for example, what little trust the company had was eroded practically overnight. It didn’t help that the site launched end-to-end DM encryption only for subscribers.

That’s not the behavior you expect from a company that’s supposed to care about the safety and security of its users. And despite more than 85% of its revenue coming from ads served to its 450 million or so users, the company laid off the people who kept those users safe.

Twitter’s head of trust and safety left in 2022, the company soon afterward dispersed its trust and safety council, and its replacement head of trust and safety also high-tailed it out of the building earlier this month.

After all that, I find myself wondering whether there’s anyone we can trust. Companies are bigger (in terms of value and revenue) than entire countries. Their user bases could fill up whole continents. And they’re all operating with limited oversight and tremendous power, almost entirely driven by their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders.

Does this imbalance mean that the enormous companies of the world should be run more like countries? Or should countries be run more like companies? I don’t love the latter, but the former also doesn’t feel right.

It’d be great if both countries and companies could learn a thing or two from each other. For example, I wish political municipalities (whether local, regional, state or national) had clearer visions, missions and values than they do. As for companies, I wish there were more checks and balances on how they wield their power, with greater emphasis on their social, governance and environmental impact than they do today, with a more pronounced focus on local cultural sensitivities.