America must have a technology ambassador for the digital world


At a glance, it might appear that the government is finally reining in the technology industry. After all, the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Google last month. The European Union slapped an antitrust suit on Amazon shortly thereafter. Then over 40 states across the country launched an antitrust suit against Facebook last week.

However, antitrust actions should not be viewed as silver bullets for the government. It is not likely to work since trillion dollar companies can handle billion dollar fines. We need to engage with technology firms instead of just punish them. America and other countries around the world have not given sufficient attention to the campaign from China pushing out its surveillance state model to weakened democracies and autocracies. To counter the spread of digital authoritarianism, we must understand the role of technology in global diplomacy.

In order to do that, the new administration of Joe Biden should appoint a technology ambassador. It would be the first step to acknowledge what technology companies have become. They are not mere multinationals. They have evolved into entities, or net states, working in areas that were once the sole domain of the government, like defense, diplomacy, citizen services, and public infrastructure. These technology empires that run at a level with countries are not just dominating markets.

They are creating defense strategies, as seen with the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, founded by Facebook and Microsoft. They are changing policing as precincts around the country use the Amazon facial recognition service. Most importantly, they have become a force in global diplomacy, as seen with Microsoft sending official representatives to the United Nations and to the European Union.

America would not be the first country to appoint an ambassador to cyberspace. A few years ago, Denmark introduced the first technology ambassador, followed by four more countries, which now have a means to engage with net states in ways that acknowledge their global influence. The United States, meanwhile, without a technology ambassador of its own, has few options to reckon with net states outside the court of law, which is not the best place to start talks or form alliances.

Alliances are what we need now. While America spent the last four years distracted by political divisions and presidential scandals, China has been busy. Since it launched the Belt and Road Initiative, China has spread its version of technology authoritarianism far and wide, with deals in almost 140 countries. In addition to trade, China is pushing out its surveillance state model to weakened democracies and autocracies alike. To at least slow the pace of this technology campaign, America needs a technology ambassador with the mandate and resources to do so.

Finally, we desperately need alliances with net states. Democracies simply cannot fight technology authoritarianism without technology firepower. Net states, for all the damage they have done to democracies, have often promoted our values, such as freedom of speech and assembly. While the government and net states may make unlikely bedfellows, the alternative is a Huawei world that streams citizen data back to China.

Biden and the leaders of Europe would be wise to reflect on whether such antitrust actions will achieve the greatest outcome for the future. It would be more advantageous for countries to engage in constructive dialogue with net states rather than come out of the gate with fines. Clear channels of communication mark the first step to form alliances.

America will not halt the growth of net states, but it should leverage their power to shore up democracies. We need a technology ambassador who engages with net states, not as judge and jury, but as an ally in the fight for freedom. The best way to slow the unchecked digital authoritarianism of China is to build a great technology wall of our own.

Alexis Wichowski is the deputy chief technology officer for the city of New York and teaches for Columbia University. The views above are hers alone.

Tags Business China Democracy Finance Government Market Politics Technology
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