If you want to counter China's digital crackdown, regulate Big Tech at home and abroad

  • American tech CEOs have fended off scrutiny of their business practices by portraying China as a bigger threat to US interests.
  • The way to counter China's digital agenda is not through a lack of regulation but rather through sensible regulations on the tech sector that balance between free and open discourse online and protecting privacy and democratic institutions, writes Coby Goldberg of the Center for a New American Security.
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The heads of Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook fended off tough questions from lawmakers last month at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee.

To help allay concerns about monopolistic business practices, each CEO sought to portray his company as representing American values and serving American interests. They all did so in part by pointing to a threat supposedly bigger than their own companies: China.

"If you look at where the top technology companies come from, a decade ago the vast majority were American. Today, almost half are Chinese," Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg said in his opening remarks. "There's no guarantee our values will win out."

Limiting Facebook's power, he implied, would only play into Beijing's hands. Zuckerberg and the other Big Tech executives returned to the specter of Chinese technological dominance more than 30 times over the course of the afternoon, according to a New York Times tally.

This was not the first time that Zuckerberg has tried to use the China threat to Facebook's advantage.

In congressional hearings about Facebook's digital currency project, Libra, Zuckerberg warned that regulating it would leave the field open to rival digital currencies from China. He was also an early advocate of banning TikTok — the Chinese-owned short-form video platform that has become a major competitor of Facebook — ostensibly due to concerns that its parent company's ties with the Chinese government could lead to content being censored.

Zuckerberg is right to warn of the threat posed by China's technological authoritarianism.

Beijing has harnessed cutting-edge machine learning tools to build surveillance systems that can track residents' travel and even identify people as predisposed to crime. It is actively exporting this Orwellian vision by providing loans to the Chinese technology giant Huawei for its "Safe City" projects across more than 90 countries and by providing training on internet policymaking for foreign leaders from more than 30 countries.

But the way to counter China's digital agenda is not through a lack of regulation, as Zuckerberg and his fellow tech titans argue. In recent years, mounting concerns over violations of digital privacy at the hands of companies like Facebook and the rampant spread of disinformation online have undermined the notion that an open and free internet means an unregulated internet.

A better way to fight back against China's global technological ambitions would be for Washington to work together with its allies and build a broad coalition in favor of sensible regulations on the technology sector that strike a balance between free and open discourse online, on the one hand, and protecting privacy and democratic institutions, on the other.

The US needs to work together with allies to offer an appealing alternative to the Chinese system. But as it stands, the US and its allies are not on the same page.

Consider the issue of data rights: In 2018, the European Union implemented the General Data Protection Regulation, the world's most comprehensive data protection scheme. Australia, Japan and South Korea have all followed suit. In the US, though, proposed legislation on digital privacy tends to die on the floor of Congress, without being brought up for a vote.

On competition, too, America's allies have gotten out ahead of it. The EU, for example, has slapped Google with more than $9 billion in fines for antitrust violations. In rapidly growing countries like India, Indonesia and Thailand, which are wavering to varying degrees between the Chinese and American models of technological governance, surveys have found that more than 80% of the population thinks the power of Big Tech companies should be limited.

Yet in spite of clear global antipathy toward the laissez-faire US approach to tech regulation, American trade negotiators have persisted in trying to promote it abroad.

In trade agreements with Canada, Mexico and Japan, for example, the Trump administration forced the inclusion of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a controversial law that shields internet companies from liability for third-party content posted on their platforms.

The White House called its deals with these countries the "gold standard on digital trade rules." But both the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee disagreed, saying it was "inappropriate for the United States to export language mirroring Section 230" while the law is the subject of a heated policy debate in the US.

In many ways, Washington is already taking the initiative in setting the global digital regulatory agenda. Through programs like the Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership, the Trump administration has tried to build other countries' regulatory capacity and counter China's efforts to export of its authoritarian model.

And the US Agency for International Development recently unveiled its first-ever Digital Strategy, an effort to advance the American vision of "open, inclusive, and secure digital ecosystems" through partnerships with foreign governments and civil society groups.

But in order to promote those kinds of digital regulations abroad, the US needs to have an appealing vision of what they should look like. Many people across the globe dislike the Chinese model of state control over personal data, but they also do not want to give corporations unfettered ownership over their data.

A survey conducted last fall by the Pew Research Center found that around 80% of Americans are concerned about the way their personal data is collected by technology companies, and feel that the risks of this data collection outweigh the benefits.

This points to a need for the US to build a domestic system that better protects its citizens' private information, perhaps even modelled after the EU's regulations.

Not only would that be in line with Americans' own stated preferences, it would also harmonize the US system with that of its allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific, allowing these countries to more effectively work together to counter China's digital ambitions. After all, many countries are wary of China's heavily subsidized tech giants exerting dominance over global markets, but they also do not want to let America's tech giants form de facto monopolies.

Zuckerberg argued that strong regulations on tech companies would hamstring America's efforts to compete with China. That argument works only in his own interest.

Competing with China requires advancing a vision of a truly open and inclusive internet, and that will necessarily require meaningful regulations to claw back the power of Facebook and other American giants. If the US wants to slow the spread of China's Orwellian technologies across the globe, it must start by regulating Big Tech at home.

Coby Goldberg is the Joseph S. Nye, Jr. intern for the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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