In recent years, the European Union has taken an aggressive stance on technology regulation, targeting large US tech companies and caring little about the global implications of their approach. Now, Congress is working on its own regulatory framework for the tech industry. This week, former national security, defense and intelligence leaders sent an open letter to Congress urging lawmakers to consider the global security implications of current tech legislation pending on Capitol Hill.
The letter – signed by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, among others – focused on the “battle brewing between the authoritarianism and democracy. The open letter reads in part:
We call on congressional committees responsible for national security…to conduct a review of any legislation that could impede major U.S. tech companies in addressing cyber risks and national security risks emanating from growing digital authoritarianism from Russia and China… It is imperative that the United States avoid the pitfalls of its key allies and partners, such as the European Union (EU).
In recent years, the threat of digital authoritarianism and the cyber capabilities of US adversaries have increased dramatically. Authoritarian regimes like Russia and China are increasingly turning to digital tools to suppress their own populations, gain influence abroad and challenge their international competitors. Russian cyberattacks and digital disinformation campaigns against Ukraine are just the latest examples.
In this new world of digital warfare, the United States has an obligation to protect the nation from cyberattacks and counter digital authoritarianism wherever possible. A 2020 report from the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on China and digital authoritarianism crystallized this responsibility. As “the world’s leading digital innovator”, the United States is “the primary entity capable of shaping the future of the digital environment”. The report goes on to warn that “if the United States continues to cede its traditional role of diplomatic and technological leadership, the global growth of China’s model of digital authoritarianism presents a grim future for the digital domain.”
The letter from former national security leaders rightly notes that the tech industry is one of the nation’s greatest advantages in the global digital conflict. While leading tech companies have a mixed track record of collaborating with authoritarian regimes and promoting digital authoritarianism, the tech industry as a whole has advanced liberal and democratic values overseas. In Ukraine, for example, American social media platforms have played an important role even after being banned in Russia. Perhaps more importantly, Starlink reportedly promised to send thousands of satellite internet receivers to Ukraine in an effort to keep the country online. But it can cut the other way. For example, late last year, several U.S. tech companies bowed to pressure from the Kremlin to ban Putin opponent Alexei Navalny’s voting app from their app stores. Similarly, Apple has blocked many apps from its App Store in China, including privacy tools like VPNs and even the The Voice of America Mobile App.
All this is happening against the background of “techlash” in the United States and Europe. Trust in the tech industry is at an all-time low, with many consumers rightly concerned about privacy, bias and security. The current techlash has prompted US lawmakers to introduce legislation aimed at addressing the perceived ills of Big Tech.
However, the US federal government has been more of a follower than a leader when it comes to tech regulation – and now even states like California are stepping in to set rules with global implications. On the global stage, the European Union has taken the lead in shaping technology governance, first with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2016 and now with the upcoming Digital Markets Act ( DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA). GDPR is a wide-ranging regulation that governs how online data processors must manage data privacy and security. It is particularly responsible for these annoying cookie notifications. The DMA is essentially antitrust legislation that prohibits certain practices by big tech companies, while the DSA sets new rules for digital services around advertising and content moderation.
Since the United States has so far been slow to establish laws and regulations for the governance of digital platforms, European laws and regulations are spilling over into American markets. In a phenomenon known as the Brussels effect, strict EU regulations tend to have an extraterritorial impact. Although the GDPR is not applicable in the United States, many American companies have implemented features stipulated in the GDPR for non-European users. Because the costs of GDPR compliance and the penalties for violations are high, many companies have taken a “better safe than sorry” approach and simply enforced GDPR on all users. The same will happen with DMA and DSA.
Many argue that the DMA and DSA are unfairly (and deliberately) targeting the US tech industry. In a joint statement, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Ranking Member Mike Crapo (R-ID) said of the DMA and DSA that: “These policies discrimination will distort trade by disadvantaging American companies and their workers, protecting European national companies, and even giving an unfair advantage to state-owned and subsidized companies based in China and Russia that do not reflect the values shared between the United States and EU on democracy, human rights and market-based principles.
In response to these concerns, the Biden administration reportedly held discussions on DMA and DSA with the Transatlantic Council for Trade and Technology. But it is not clear that the legislation being considered before Congress would seriously address this problem. On the contrary, many of his proposals seem to adhere to the European protectionist theory of singling out large American companies. In the fight against digital authoritarianism and the global race for technological dominance, it would be irrational for the United States to adhere to the assumptions and attitudes of the EU’s historically anti-American approach.
It is time for the United States to wake up to the global challenges ahead and the rivalry between liberal Western values and growing illiberal threats. For this to succeed, Congress and the administration must work to change the narrative and create industry-specific legal and regulatory frameworks for technology that can be a global model for promoting democratic values, as well as robust global competition. , economic growth , and innovation.
Luke Hogg is policy manager at Lincoln Network, focusing on the intersection of technology innovation and public policy.