It’s billed as a summit for democracy. Under U.S. leadership, countries from six continents will gather from March 29 to March 30 to highlight “how democracies deliver for their citizens and are best equipped to address the world’s most pressing challenges,” according to the U.S. State Department.
Although advancing technology for democracy is a key pillar of the summit’s agenda, the United States has been missing in action when it comes to laying out and leading on a vision for democratic tech leadership. And by staying on the sidelines and letting others—most notably the European Union—lead on tech regulation, the United States has the most to lose economically and politically.
One in five private-sector jobs in the United States is linked to the tech sector, making tech a cornerstone of the U.S. economy. When U.S. tech companies are negatively impacted by global economic headwinds, overzealous regulators, or other factors, the consequences are felt across the economy, as the recent tech layoffs impacting tens of thousands of workers have shown.
And “tech” isn’t just about so-called Big Tech companies such as Alphabet (Google’s parent company) or social media platforms such as Meta’s Facebook and Instagram. Almost every company is now a tech company—automakers, for example, can track users’ movements from GPS data, require large numbers of computer chips, and use the cloud for data storage. Rapid developments in artificial intelligence, especially in the field of natural language processing (the ability behind OpenAI’s ChatGPT), have widespread applications across an even larger swath of sectors including media and communications.
This means that tech policy is not just about content moderation or antitrust legislation—two of the main areas of focus for U.S. policymakers. Rather, tech policy is economic policy, trade policy, and—when it comes to U.S. tech spreading across the globe—foreign policy.
As the global leader in technology innovation, the United States has a real competitive edge as well as a political opportunity to advance a vision for technology in the service of democracy. But the window to act is rapidly narrowing as others, including like-minded democracies in Europe but also authoritarian China, are stepping in to fill the leadership void.
The European Union has embarked on an ambitious regulatory agenda, laying out a growing number of laws to govern areas including digital services taxes, data sharing, online advertising, and cloud services. Although the regulatory efforts may be based in democratic values, in practice, they have an economic agenda: France, for example, expects to make 670 million euros in 2023 from digital services taxes, with much of that coming from large U.S. tech companies.
What’s worse is that while other key EU regulations, such as the Digital Markets Act (DMA), target the largest U.S. firms, they leave Chinese-controlled companies such as Alibaba and Tencent less regulated. That’s because the DMA sets out very narrow criteria to define “gatekeepers,” such as company size and market position, to only cover large U.S. firms, thus benefiting both European companies and subsidized Chinese competitors and creating potential security vulnerabilities when it comes to data collection and access.
While Europe rushes to regulate, China has developed an effective model of digital authoritarianism: strangling the internet with censorship, deploying AI technologies such as facial recognition for surveillance, and advocating for cyber “sovereignty,” which is doublespeak for state control of data and information. Beijing has been actively exporting these tools to other countries, primarily in the global south, where the United States is fighting an uphill battle to convince countries to join its global democracy agenda.
And the battle for hearts and minds has implications far beyond tech—it goes to the heart of U.S. global leadership. In last month’s vote at the United Nations to condemn Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, endorsed by the United States, the majority of the countries that voted against or abstained were from Africa, South America, and Asia.
Without a U.S.-led concerted effort to push back against authoritarian states’ desire to define the rules around technology, large democracies such as Turkey and India are also wavering, imposing increasingly authoritarian limits on free speech online. The result is growing digital fragmentation—fragmentation that benefits authoritarian adversaries.
The Biden administration says it wants to see technology harnessed to support democratic freedoms, strengthen our democratic alliances, and beat back the authoritarian vision of a government-run internet.
Here’s how it could help achieve these goals.
First, the administration should map out an affirmative technology strategy, making sure that U.S. workers and consumers benefit from U.S. tech leadership. This means investing in competitiveness and a smarter public-private approach to research and development, an area the United States has underfunded for over a decade.
Tech touches on almost every sector of the U.S. economy as well as international trade, defense, and security, and involves almost every government agency from the State Department’s Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy to the Federal Trade Commission and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. And while most European countries now have full ministries for digital affairs, the U.S. doesn’t have similarly politically empowered counterparts tasked with coordinating a whole-of-government effort across all government agencies to produce a national strategy for technology. This needs to change.
Second, the administration should take advantage of the bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress on the need to push back against China’s growing domination in tech by putting forward a balanced regulatory agenda that establishes clear rules for responsible innovation. In an op-ed earlier this year, U.S. President Joe Biden called for Republicans and Democrats to hold social media platforms accountable for how they use and collect data, moderate online content, and treat their competition. To be sure, a national privacy law is long overdue, as several states have already passed their own laws, creating a confusing regulatory environment.
But this agenda is too backward-looking: Policymakers today are debating how to regulate technology from 20 years ago, when social media companies first emerged. As ChatGPT has shown, tech advancements far outpace regulatory efforts. A balanced agenda would set out key principles and ethical guardrails, rather than seek to regulate specific companies or apps. Banning TikTok, for example, won’t prevent another Chinese company from taking its place.
Third, the U.S. should reenergize its engagement in multilateral institutions. The United States is taking the right steps in endorsing Japan’s initiative at the next G-7 meeting to establish international standards for trust in data flows, known as the Data Free Flow with Trust. The administration has also appointed an ambassador at large for cyberspace and digital policy to work more closely with allies on tech cooperation.
The U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union, which helps develop standards in telecoms, is now directed by American Doreen Bogdan-Martin, which also presents an opportunity to beat back Russian and Chinese attempts to impose government control over the internet and instead reinforce the present private sector- and civil society-led internet governance model.
Washington has led important defensive efforts to challenge Beijing’s system of sovereignty and surveillance and has brought key allies along in these efforts. But it has not done enough to drive an affirmative agenda on technology innovation and tech-driven economic opportunity. The Biden administration has an opportunity now to prioritize tech. There is no time to waste.