Aides to president-elect Joe Biden and vice president–elect Kamala Harris have already begun work on a presidential transition, even if the Trump administration only tries to obstruct that process. Coming out of four years of chaos and disarray, of elected and appointed officials eroding democratic norms and institutions, of a White House that has enormously damaged and abdicated US leadership on the world stage, there are innumerable domestic and foreign policy priorities. Perhaps first and foremost is getting the Covid-19 pandemic under control. Because digital issues compose a mere fraction of the bigger picture (albeit woven throughout), they must be understood in this context, too.
Long gone are the days when technology policy could be considered niche and divorced from politics. Any reinvigoration of US leadership on technology policy will exist in a world of populism and fragile democracy, of unregulated American technology giants, of authoritarian countries wielding technologies once hailed as freedom-spreading to further their own repressive ends. The Biden administration’s tech policy must therefore draw on alliances abroad—but also on a foundation of tech regulation at home.
Donald Trump has dealt profound damage to the United States’ alliance system; though well known, it’s hard to overstate. The now-lame-duck president appeared to view global partnerships not even as a means to an end but as useless altogether, continually doubling down on his “America first” behavior despite signals that it was terribly received and causing serious harm. (The exception, of course, being the relationships he saw as personally beneficial.) A senior European diplomat recently told Reuters, “The transatlantic relationship has never been this bad.” They added: “It can be repaired, but … I’m not sure it will be the same.”
Failures of coalition-building were prominently on display throughout Washington’s campaign against Chinese telecom Huawei. The (correct) claim was that Huawei’s supplying of 5G infrastructure poses cybersecurity risks, but the administration’s execution betrayed this very idea, as Trump himself offered that he could interfere with a Huawei executive’s prosecution in exchange for trade concessions from Beijing. National security was but a personal and political pawn. Trade policy and national security, too, were increasingly blurred together.
Combined with the administration’s wrecking of alliances in general, White House officials remained utterly incapable of convincing longtime allies and partners, many of whom shared concerns about Huawei equipment security, to follow the US’ lead to ban Huawei equipment from 5G networks. From the United Kingdom and France to Canada, India, and South Korea, other countries expressed remarkable aversion to following the US’ prescriptions. Diplomats may have tried, but the political powers-that-be ripped the rug out from underneath them. This is all without even attempting to misuse a word like “strategy” to describe a process that had no real strategy whatsoever. In late 2019, for instance, I attended a conversation with a senior adviser to the Trump administration on intelligence matters. When asked about the Huawei endgame—OK, so the US government convinces others to ban Huawei equipment, and Huawei 5G tanks; then what—the individual just shrugged. In reality, when that approach didn’t work, the Trump administration began threatening allies. So much for thinking ahead with complexity.
This is precisely why the incoming Biden administration, which emphasized multilateralism throughout the campaign, must found its global technology policy on alliances as well. Relations with allies in the EU and across Asia, for example, are pivotal to coalition-building on technology issues like data governance. American policymakers should harbor no illusions that the US will suddenly find total symmetry with the likes of EU member states on data privacy, say, but a renewed US global tech policy should still be founded on productive dialog, on real diplomacy, on recovering and restoring international partnerships.
Better engagement with emerging market economies will also play an important role in advancing digital rights and addressing digital trade barriers. Officials must recognize that American technology companies are not trusted in many parts of the world; rising concerns about “digital colonialism” speak exactly to harms perpetrated by US internet giants in a context of global power imbalances. Governments already use that reasoning for implementing data-flow-restrictive policies in some cases, and for advancing digital repression in others: The administration will have to contend with both realities.
Washington’s relationship with New Delhi is another important case. India is often underemphasized in the US foreign policy discussion, yet its influence on global technology development, and the government’s concerns about Chinese state cyber threats, presents great opportunities for bilateral cooperation. The government’s recent expulsions of TikTok and many other Chinese technologies from the country have already shifted the market landscape and signaled a pushback to Beijing. At the same time, however, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has preached and weaponized hate, and Indian officials have shut down the internet within India more times than any other country in both 2018 and 2019. The United States, while recognizing potential for alignment on some issues, needs to make clear that such hate and digital repression are completely unacceptable.
A new administration must also build its global technology policy on tech regulation within American borders.
Many needed regulations, like a strong consumer data privacy law, must go through Congress—a body whose recent October hearing on content moderation was marred by bad-faith political theater from Republicans (a party which may retain control of the Senate). Only time will tell exactly how willing those politicians will be to join their colleagues across the aisle in having real, thoughtful, fact-based conversations about regulating US internet giants. I’m not holding my breath. All that considered, the executive branch has a big role to play in setting a domestic technology agenda. The Biden administration should and likely could pursue antitrust enforcement against monopolistic tech company behavior, through the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission. Administration officials should also push Congress to pass a robust federal data privacy law to protect consumers—recognizing, as Rebecca MacKinnon wrote in 2012, that internet freedom starts at home. Just as essential is requesting more funding for domestic initiatives, like closing the digital divide by making broadband more accessible.
For all the US has preached internet “freedom” and technology leadership in the past four years, the Trump administration has only undercut and undermined the diplomats who tirelessly work to support this freedom, while pursuing a disorganized mix of half-baked, autocratic-leaning technology policies at home. Restoring the United States’ global technology policy leadership therefore sits in a broader context of alliance-reinvigorating and domestic tech regulation. Much remains up in the air, including which individuals will fill key roles in the incoming administration, but these two pillars should serve as key foundations of global US tech policy nonetheless.
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