If we ever thought we could survive without the technology sector, we now know otherwise. As countries worldwide went into lockdown beginning in the winter and spring of 2020, technologies that did not exist even a decade before became our lifelines. Videoconferencing, cloud computing, and highspeed internet at employees’ homes enabled at least some parts of the economy to carry on. New technologies became the main channel through which many of us reached out to loved ones and obtained news and entertainment. The social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, absent these new technologies, does not bear thinking about.
For technology companies, 2020 was also a year of heightened risk. At one time, many companies in the sector were able to treat political risk as an afterthought. The classic academic studies of political risk in the 1970s and 80s found that use of advanced technology, and vertical integration, made companies less likely to suffer expropriation or government intervention, in part because a subsidiary reliant on high technology could not be operated without the participation of the foreign partner.1
How times change. Today, the technology sector is in the crosshairs of government regulators worldwide, and has become the central battleground in an acrimonious trade war between the US and China. Many readers might hitherto have associated the term “expropriation” with the oil sector in Latin America. In 2020, “expropriation” became the term of choice for newspapers describing US policy towards certain Chinese technology firms.2
Perhaps as result, at Willis Towers Watson, we have seen the technology sector become an increasingly large share of our book of business for political risk insurance. In an effort to understand this phenomenon, we commissioned Oxford Analytica to conduct research into the new political risks facing technology companies. Oxford Analytica convened an expert panel of technology sector executives, to produce the risk radar that appears in the next section, and commissioned scholars in its global expert network to produce peer-reviewed essays on three of the top risks the panel identified: “what next for US-China conflict;” “political uses and abuses of technology;” and “tech supply chains in a world of economic nationalism”.
There was a time when technology companies arguably took pride in operating beyond the reach of government restrictions. Tech moved quickly; public policy moved slowly. As you will see in the pages that follow, that situation is changing, with governments taking an increasingly assertive stance on technology regulation even as civil society raises difficult questions about the political role played by new technologies.
What risks will technology companies face as their sector becomes central to geostrategic competition? How are technology companies managing these new threats? We hope you will find Oxford Analytica’s findings on these subjects to be useful.
We sincerely thank the Oxford Analytica contributors who authored the following essays, but most of all we thank the expert panel of technology executives who guided the research for their time and insights.
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1 Thomas A Poynter. 1982. Government intervention in less developed countries: The experience of multinational companies. Journal of International Business Studies, 13(1): 9-25. Stephen J. Kobrin. 1987. Testing the bargaining hypothesis in the manufacturing sector in developing countries. International Organization, 41(4): 609-638. Stephen J. Kobrin. 1980. Foreign enterprise and forced divestment in LDCs. International Organization, 34(1): 65-88.
Sam Wilkin is WTW's director of political risk analytics, meaning he constantly monitors emerging and existing politically-linked threats to companies. He also leads WTW's annual political risk survey.
Stuart Ashworth is Head of Credit and Political Risk Insurance for Corporates and Head of Broking and Market Engagement for WTW's Financial Solutions team. Prior to this he spent nine years in Singapore, looking after WTW business covering Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia.