Commentary January 20, 2021

Heal the Transatlantic Technology Policy Rift to Combat China's Digital Authoritarian Model

Our EU partners must resist the impulse to digital sovereignty.
china and us flags

The incoming Biden-Harris foreign policy team recognizes well that technology now sits at the epicenter of geopolitics: all aspects of government power — military, economic, and normative — increasingly derive from dominance in technology. The new U.S. team also recognizes that the transatlantic alliance should be working together to drive a 21st-century digital agenda that reflects democratic values. Unfortunately, during the Trump administration, the prospect of such cooperation diminished. Instead, the transatlantic rift over technology policy has grown. Disagreements over government surveillance, private sector data collection and sharing, platform content restrictions, digital competition, and protection of fundamental freedoms like privacy and free expression mean that Europe and the United States find themselves increasingly at odds

Just this summer, the EU Court of Justice struck down the Privacy Shield arrangement, negotiated during the Obama-Biden administration to facilitate cross-border data transfers, putting $7 trillion in digital trade at risk. Instead of democratic unity, some European leaders have embraced a concept of “digital sovereignty” (similar to the Chinese concept of “cyber sovereignty”) in the face of a perceived technology cold war between the U.S. and China. .

No doubt, a democratic regulatory framework for digital services is long overdue. This should be a focal point for the new administration.
Eileen Donahoe
Executive Director, GDPi

Ironically, one area of agreement seems to be the threat posed by dominant U.S. technology companies. Last month, the European Union unveiled new regulation that would impose fines of up to 10 percent of revenue on large “gatekeeper” companies -- a euphemism for US “Big Tech” -- that abuse their market power. In the waning days of the Trump administration, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Facebook and launched an investigation into data collection at nine companies. At a time when Europe and the United States are divided on many tech issues, they have converged on one point: big tech companies are bad for democracies.

No doubt, a democratic regulatory framework for digital services is long overdue. This should be a focal point for the new administration. The heart of that framework should be protection of fundamental rights to privacy, free expression, freedom of assembly and association, as well as transparency and accountability mechanisms that support user’s procedural rights.

But policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic need to be careful not to hit the wrong target. The real threat to democracies isn’t the size or dominance of U.S. tech companies: it’s China’s rapidly spreading model of digital authoritarianism. Rather than focusing primarily on competition within their borders, Europe and the United States need to raise their sights and consider the much more ominous competitive threat posed by Chinese technological dominance.

The global tech race is about far more than market competition – it is a normative battle. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) understands that geopolitical and normative power stem from dominance in digital technologies. It has focused on becoming a global innovation powerhouse through fusion of its civil-military tech R&D and direct support of its tech industry. The immensity of Beijing’s investment in emerging technologies is staggering, with no less than 16 different “Manhattan Project”-scale initiatives in fields as varied as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cryptography, 5G, facial recognition, and genomics.

As China’s tech industry grows, so does its ability to set international norms and standards that reflect authoritarian values and interests. Beijing has deployed ground-breaking technology for repression, most notably against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang, where an unprecedented system of mass surveillance monitors the movement of people, phones, and vehicles to detect inappropriate activity that merits investigation or detention. At the same time, China presumes state control over all data and seeks to normalize its concept of “cyber sovereignty” (a concept uncomfortably close to the EU’s chosen term “digital sovereignty”) which rejects outside scrutiny of its use of technology to violate human rights.

Most concerningly, Beijing’s dominance in technology has translated into greater clout in the international diplomatic realm. Its influence has been visible in tech standard setting bodies like the ITU, where it has sought to embed its preferred protocols in next generation interoperability standards. At the UN Human Rights Council, China succeeded in convincing a majority of countries not to criticize its repressive uses of technology in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

To combat the rise of China’s model of digital authoritarianism, Europe and the United States cannot focus solely on technology challenges within their own borders. They must overcome their own tech policy divisions and embrace responsibility to develop a democratic digital strategy that attracts global support. The agenda must simultaneously drive innovation and solidify a normative framework for governance of data and technology that protects fundamental rights. In an olive branch to the incoming Biden Administration, the EU proposed to set a joint transatlantic tech agenda. It then turned around to sign a massive trade deal with China. These mixed signals could send us in the wrong direction. The Biden administration should seize the first entrée and set up a process to immediately seek concrete progress on our shared technology interests. To be effective, such an agenda must emphasize three core areas.

First, the U.S. and E.U. must develop a joint plan to protect critical supply chains and invest in emerging technologies. This should include concrete mechanisms for U.S.-EU cooperation on innovation and increased joint investment in emerging technology research.

Second, the plan must articulate a democratic approach to cross-border data protection and a shared framework for governance of digital society consistent with universal human rights principles. A new process could be established to reconcile diverging policies on privacy and free expression, as well as norms on use of data and technology by governments and the private sector.

Third, transatlantic partners must reenergize their international diplomacy and develop a coordinated strategy to combat China’s influence in both tech standards and norm setting bodies. The United States and Europe must attract, and then leverage, the combined power of democratic coalitions at multilateral institutions to push back against China’s encroaching influence. Incorporating technology innovation as part of international development efforts will add to the attraction. 

A shared technology agenda can provide a new underpinning for the transatlantic alliance, on par with collective defense and a commitment to democratic values and principles. Regulation for regulation’s sake will only weaken democracies’ already waning dominance in digital technologies, and with it, our collective ability to set the international normative agenda on everything from artificial intelligence to cloud computing. Digital sovereignty that prevents collaboration is not the way forward. Working together to secure a democratic digital domain should be the ultimate goal. In this effort, U.S. tech companies are not the enemy.

Eileen Donahoe

Executive Director, Global Digital Policy Incubator
2015 eileen donahoe 04 web 1

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