If there ever was an instance of the proverbial handwriting on the wall, this week provided it. From the TikTok and WeChat affairs to IBM’s filing on facial recognition and the semiconductor industry’s call for government support, the signs are unmistakable: the 40-year old U.S. policy of hands-off tech is coming to an end. These developments also reveal the rough outlines of the new industrial policy for tech that is beginning to take shape.
The Administration’s approach to TikTok and WeChat is to exclude them from the U.S. market, unless their technology can be separated from the control of Chinese companies. The concern is not over the companies themselves or their commercial data privacy practices, but the possibility that the data could be obtained by the Chinese government and used in some fashion to harm U.S. national security interests. In addition, the Administration is concerned that hidden algorithms might allow censorship or disinformation campaigns that undermine these interests.
IBM filed a comment with the Department of Commerce expressing its strong concern that facial recognition software might fall into the hands of companies or governments that would use the technology for human rights abuses. This filing is in response to the agency’s proceeding asking which new technologies are dual-use, capable of serving both civilian and military purposes, and so should be subjected to export control licenses.
The Semiconductor Industry Association issued a report asking the government for significant support of $50 billion to relocated chip manufacturing facilities in the U.S. to ensure a supply for national defense and aerospace needs. This support is needed to implement the U.S. apparent policy conclusion that in a multipolar world of intense geo-political conflict the risks to our national security and defense interests of outsourcing the supply chain for these essential inputs into high technology equipment are too great.
Finally, in a series of speeches Senator Mark Warner has raised these security and human rights concerns with technology diffusion and has embraced the logical conclusion of a significantly increased role of the U.S. government in crafting an industrial policy for tech. He and other law makers have introduced legislation accomplishing these industrial policy goals including significant government support for research and development for artificial intelligence.
These developments bring together some strange bedfellows, linking human rights activists and proponents of national security and industrial policy. For instance, legal scholar Frank Pasquale seems to join the national security chorus worrying about who is using technology when he urges a greater role for the government in reviewing the uses of advanced technologies, a development which he calls the “second wave of algorithmic accountability.” He welcomes this departure from the earlier process-oriented approach that would simply ask whether the technology accomplished whatever purpose it was aiming at in a fair and non-discriminatory manner.
The outlines of this new approach are not hard to discern. There will be a significant role for the protection of U.S. national security interests and larger considerations of global economic competition. There will be a major emphasis on whether the particular use of technology conforms to standards of ethics and human rights. And government will likely put its money where its mouth is by funding strategic R & D initiatives and financing needed supply chain adjustments taken to advance national interests and human rights.
These developments, especially in the TikTok and WeChat affairs, also call for a reevaluation of both the previous prioritization of global economic integration above all other values as well as the long-standing U.S. commitment to the unfettered free flow of information.
Tech policy practitioners will have to adjust to this new framework and to a different range of government institutions that will implement the new approach. Deliberations and discussions will move technology policy away from the familiar agencies that have guided tech policy thinking for the last 40 years. Activists and advocates are comfortable with the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. But crucial policy developments and decisions have moved to other agencies of government, to the Bureau of Industry Security in the Commerce Department, to the Defense Innovation Board at the Defense Department, to the national security agencies and the national security council, and most crucially to Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CIFIUS).
It’s a brave new world, with huge opportunities and unprecedented challenges. But it’s already here and tech policy leaders and advocates must adapt or become irrelevant.