A utopian view of sharing information across world cultures was the original idea of the internet. But when it came to the ideology and security behind the internet’s data, the geopolitical landscape became complicated very quickly. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. moved from a trade war with China to a tech war, demonstrating that our battle lines are now drawn in technology.
The Biden administration inherits this modern tech war, but will set a new direction for policy on technology. A softer, more diplomatic, and productive dialogue is widely expected to improve the political and business climate. But there is turbulence on the horizon in the call for regulation of American technology, now on a global scale as “Big Tech,” and corresponding tech diplomacy.
The tides of geopolitical influence are shifting as politics and culture move downstream from technology. The articulation of politics a century ago was smoothed over by diplomats, and conducted through newspapers and by telegraph. The public oratory has now been condensed onto social media platforms and globalized. In a post-digital era, digital spaces are our spaces, and cybersecurity is our security.
Technology has facilitated global communication, yielding unprecedented access between countries and cultures, effectively leveling our national borders. But countries around the world are reinstating these borders digitally, via firewalls, content censoring, internet service shutdowns, app bans, company blacklists, and data localization requirements that draw a ring around cultural ideology on digital communication.
At last year’s WEF in Davos, Yuval Noah Harari said “When you have enough data, you don’t need to send soldiers to control a country.” The idea of national sovereignty is becoming just as much about data and technology as it is about land borders.
In the current triangular geopolitics of technology, there is Big Tech in the U.S., bigger tech in China, and the European Union in the middle with robust regulations, but without a base of technology giants within its borders to regulate. The EU has served as a model for technology policy at the governmental level, specifically on issues such as establishing data privacy as a human right, and setting new precedents for digital jurisprudence, such as extraterritorial application of internet laws.
The relationship between the U.S. and China has deteriorated from being tangled in a relatively more predictable trade war into a contentious tech war, marked by actions such as the mutual blacklisting of technology companies. Behind the moves are divergent views on the human values at the core of these technological frameworks, which is becoming more and more relevant and controversial as data becomes tightly integrated in every aspect of our lives.
How President Biden moves the compass on this relationship is of critical importance for the technology industry worldwide. Cabinet nominations so far indicate a tough stance on China. But American technology companies need access to global markets, especially China, to achieve the scale that funds the investment necessary to compete in global technology. The relationship is also a critical supply chain variable, and dependence on China or any other single country is a real weakness both in cost efficiency and supply chain vunerability.
The Biden administration will likely redirect U.S. foreign policy away from a unilateral attack on China and towards establishing alliances with leading industrial and technological democracies to take on China and develop infrastructure supply alternatives in areas like 5G. At the same time, China will seek to lessen dependence on the U.S., which will translate into less potential for American technology in China as foreign market entry is limited to what is critical and strategic. The Biden administration is expected to take stock of American reliance on China and strengthen industrial policy to incentivize American companies to invest in manufacturing at home in the U.S., or at least outside of China.
Tech wars and trends towards decoupling necessitate a new brand of diplomacy. Nation-states are creating roles like “Tech Ambassador” and “Secretary of State for the Digital Sector.” Chinese military academy documents reference a military struggle in the cyber domain. But the U.S. lacks a cohesive cybersecurity policy to define these ideological battlelines of the future in technology.
The Trump administration policy was reactive, threatening to block apps like TikTok, and otherwise leaving Big Tech to call the shots on the rules to be established and enforced. The Biden administration will grapple with defining the real-world harms caused by this business model, and likely establish laws similar to those in the EU governing how social media companies contend with hate speech, political ads, conspiracy theories, and incitement of violence, and possibly move forward on antitrust regulations needed to provide a framework to protect democracy.
EU leadership called the regulation of truth one of the most important issues for Western democracy, but has voiced the need to progress unilaterally on its agenda if Americans are distracted by their tenuous, all-consuming domestic agenda. President Biden will not necessarily be able to take European alignment against China for granted; as of late the EU has shown to be guided more by Berlin than Washington.
The Biden administration will also be forced to deal with the second order consequence of U.S.-based social media platforms’ policies deployed globally. In the wake of Twitter’s deplatforming of President Trump, Angela Merkel and other world leaders expressed concern about American technology companies as gatekeepers to the modern day speech platforms that are social media.
Dating back to the Arab Spring, social media has enabled social movements, political protests, and even played a key role in toppling governments – with content inciting violence, but also serving as the key means of communication for national liberation groups against authoritarian regimes. Deeper down the technical stack are service providers like AWS that control content distribution. From private business to foreign leaders, there is emerging concern about American companies ruling the digital world, and it will become a critical issue for President Biden to manage on the diplomatic radar.
EU leaders describe America’s future as less predictable and less dependable. The new Biden administration uniquely faces the prospect of a post-American world after internal political chaos, COVID failures, and numerous Trump-era diplomatic crises. President Biden’s challenge is to build the confidence needed for technological growth, security, and innovation, requiring us to come together across political and international boundaries to shape the digital 21st century.
The author is an intercultural strategist at BecauseCulture. As a former corporate executive with various expatriate posts in emerging markets, and a linguist, she advises multinational corporations on cultural elements in technology and digital communication. She holds a degree in international finance from Georgetown University, and a master’s in language from the University of Wisconsin.