A decade ago the tech companies were the great capitalist hope at a place like this. The sunny vision of technology connecting the world, and helping both to enlighten and to democratise, shone through from the speeches here of the Zuckerbergs, Pages and Gates. It was a marked contrast to the post crisis backlash against the bankers. We are in a very different place right now. Tech companies making billions from your data have proved elusive for the world’s top tax systems.
In a memorable exchange at Davos last year, tech billionaire Michael Dell was explaining how higher taxes on the rich had never done much good anywhere, when he was contradicted. Actually, said Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they’d worked pretty well within living memory in his own country, the U.S. For an executive crowd that’s thrived under 40 years or more of policies based on freeing up business and markets, the observation was a reminder that older versions of Western capitalism didn’t always look like that – and a warning the next incarnation might not, either. Rather than a hands-off approach, governments are gearing up for a more active role in steering economies through the big challenges of the coming decade, from global warming and inequality to the great-power race for a technological edge. Perhaps unsurprisingly, politicians from Europe, Asia and even the U.S. are embracing the idea.
Technology is still where much of the action is in Davos, and the tech companies will still be occupying the best venues on the promenade — a good indicator of who dominates. The large public companies will divide their time between acknowledging controversies over a range of issues, from privacy infringements to antitrust violations, and participating in the WEF’s “Tech for Good” content, say analysts, (with delegates expecting to hear much about how fintech can help the unbanked and what cloud computing is doing for small business, along with individual corporate announcements such as Microsoft’s 30-year plan to become carbon negative).
Davos attendees will also see large tech and telecoms companies, which in the past often kept to themselves with private events and bilateral meetings, engaging with a broad group of stakeholders around topics such as digital taxation and cryptocurrency. Financial regulators, tech companies, big banks and officials from the Bank for International Settlements will also be meeting to discuss the future of digital payments and how to move towards a cryptocurrency future not dominated by a single large company such as Facebook or a surveillance state such as China.
On Thursday, companies including PayPal, Visa, UPS and Ericsson, plus global labour leaders, regulators and trade and development ministers, will convene to discuss how to shape the rules for digital trade and ensure it does not become a zero-sum game that exacerbates existing problems or increases corporate concentration. Worries about the regional fracturing of 5G standards and privacy policies are also on the agenda. This is leading to what many experts believe will be a “splinternet”, dominated by the US and China, with Europe under pressure to choose sides on whose equipment and digital standards it will adopt.
AT A GLANCE
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the World Economic Forum, popularly known as the Davos Forum. The event kicks off on January 21 in the Swiss district of Davos-Klosters. For half a century, this forum has brought together politicians, businesspeople, and representatives from social and cultural organizations in order to find solutions for the world’s problems. 2020 sees the launch of a new ‘Davos Manifesto’ with the single objective of building a more sustainable, inclusive world.