At the House Judiciary Committee hearing on July 29, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai each tried to defend their company against antitrust regulation by touting their values as an American corporation. Placed in opposition to this, for some, was an enemy more menacing than all of them: China.
Zuckerberg’s written remarks discussed China and a competition of global values. Bezos spoke of American workers delivering products to American customers. Cook said that “Apple is a uniquely American company whose success is only possible in this country.” Pichai wrote that “just as American leadership in these areas is not inevitable, we know Google’s continued success is not guaranteed.” All the while, some Republican lawmakers rambled off allegations that the companies’ work in China amounted to treason.
Proclamations of patriotism fed an implicit and at times explicit message of “don’t regulate us or we can’t compete with China.” But that framing is deliberately misleading. While the conversation should be about promoting free and open internet values simultaneously with democratic technology regulation—tech giants and politicians alike increasingly focus on the false choice between the two.
Tech companies have recently advanced the argument that regulation will only hinder the US’ ability to compete with Chinese firms. Much like wet clay, however, American tech giants have molded the specifics of this argument based on whatever suits the present circumstance.
For a while, this was a “data is the new oil” argument: Namely, privacy protections on US companies would mean “China” would win the “AI race” because they have more access to this “oil.” Now, Big Tech molds its argument around free speech, or at least a frequently self-serving conception of it. Zuckerberg won much public attention in this vein last fall when he depicted US internet companies, in their relatively unregulated forms, as a free-speech, open-internet counterbalance to technology companies based in China.
Puncturing this binary worldview is, well, reality: conflicting online speech mandates between countries; social media platforms which refuse to remove dangerous, democracy-harming lies just because they’re shared by politicians; and, all the while, a malleable “just complying with local laws” claim that may absurdly compare responses to law enforcement data requests in, say, an authoritarian country like Russia to that in a democracy like Germany. Not to mention Microsoft’s and Google’s censored search engine pursuits in China, or Facebook speaking of human rights violations in China once it gave up on entering the Chinese market.
A somewhat pernicious techno-determinism pervades this discourse—an implication that the country in which a technology is developed impacts the technology’s susceptibility to abuse. Bluntly, some assume from this rhetoric that political governance in a technology’s country of origin is an indicator of “how oppressive it is.” The technology underpinning social credit scoring in China, for example, must be “more prone to abuse” or “more evil” than that used, for instance, in prison sentencing in US courts. More research is needed on the subject, yet conclusion-jumping is used to give US firms a pass.
Though Facebook’s executives are the biggest purveyors of this narrative, they’re not the only beneficiaries. Amazon, Apple, Google, and other tech giants—like giants in many industries—also lobby aggressively in Washington and are well aware of the geopolitical moment. Congress and especially the Trump administration are paying close attention to Chinese technology companies’ growth, and concurrent concerns of Beijing’s influence on said entities. Leaning on those fears as reason to avoid regulating large US tech firms is a corporate strategy.
Yes, the notion of rule of law in the US is not comparable to that notion in Russia or Iran or China. Yes, there are real examples or risks of Chinese internet companies censoring information at the government’s behest, spreading propaganda, and spying on behalf of the regime. The Chinese government has made clear that it wants to rewrite the rules for global cyberspace, and that should concern all those who support or benefit from a relatively free and open internet underpinned by multi-stakeholder—not state-led—governance.
But US technology companies (surprise) can do bad things abroad and at home, too. Corporate hinting that “our tech is better because it’s American” is thus perhaps nothing more than a nationalistic ploy to distract from the role US technologies play in oppression and human rights abuses and the need for further research on the connection between digital technologies, their country of origin, and technological harm.
All told, false trade-offs in these discussions abound: from privacy-versus-innovation, which ignores how privacy can be threaded into algorithm development; to nonsensical, bad-faith arguments that dismiss all technology harms as irrelevant in light of alleged benefits provided by major technology companies. Today, regulation talk is now dominated by a badly illustrated and inaccurate choice between robustly regulating US tech companies and pushing back against authoritarian censorship and digital control. It’s a dichotomy that in and of itself says both cannot be done at once, and in doing so may only guide its adopters to push the US further from the kinds of digital policies it needs, like safeguarding data privacy.
There are many reasons why technology companies operating under the influence of authoritarian governments are dangerous. Yet the problem comes in twisting such a concern, and legitimate questions about the value of US technological leadership, into a broad mandate that in fact whispers no regulation whatsoever for American firms. Despite much discussion and debate about some large tech titan behavior in need of public policy intervention—horrible working conditions, dangerously intimate data collection, continued sales of facial recognition technology, and, yes, ever-expanding market power—this regulation-dodging rhetoric lives on.