Scott Bath is the editor of the TechCrunch Global Affairs Project special series and writes regularly on foreign affairs. He is a former speechwriter for Mike Bloomberg and co-author of “More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First”.
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About 30 years ago, the political scientist Joseph Nye overturned conventions when he claimed that states not only exercise “hard” power – that is, military power – but also “soft” power. Soft power, Nye wrote, is “when a country makes other countries want what it wants … as opposed to the hard or commanding power of commanding others to do what it wants.”
In other words, soft power is governed by attraction, not violence. Countries with greater cultural, economic, scientific and moral influence, it is theorized, “beat over their weight” and convert that influence into material gain. It includes everything that is not weapons, soldiers or material. Queen Elizabeth II is a soft power all star, as is Rihanna. But also Hollywood, Sushi, Louis Vuitton and Copacabana Beach.
People like Broadway, Michael Jordan, Harvard and Starbucks have long since made America a superpower by conventional means, including a soft power. But much of America’s soft power in recent years has come from our technological ingenuity. After all, the biggest names in technology – Amazon, Facebook, Google – are Americans. The rich of the world almost invariably use iPhones; the world’s leading companies run on Microsoft Windows. And world leaders from Narendra Modi to the Pope rely on Twitter and Instagram to reach their followers.
In other words, the world’s operating system is American. And that means that the majority of the world lives on technologies that are largely based on American values like freedom of speech, privacy, respect for diversity and decentralization.
Now, Silicon Valley is perhaps the biggest overseas draw that America has. As many as 40% the software workers are immigrants. Google, Tesla and Stripe all have founders with a migration background. When I was at Stanford a decade ago, I saw the delegations’ endless march firsthand. Germans, Australians – even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – all came up with a version of the same question: how do we replicate Silicon Valley at home?
American politicians have rightly pointed to our technology sector as one of America’s best exports. But what happens when it ceases to be a force for good? Is it possible that soft power actually does its opposite and diminishes the influence of a nation?
After all, the damaging externalities of the technology are well documented – fake news a genocide in India ignited in Myanmar, ISIS propaganda in Britain. Europe has went after tech giants like Apple and Google for tax evasion and privacy violations, while Amazon has come Under fire in the UK for worker abuse. And the unhealthy effects of technology on children and young people are rightly underestimated increased control.
How the technology is bound increasingly dependent on hard power – and since American supremacy increasingly depends on big tech companies – Washington remains a mystery: If, like Nye, postulated In 2012, “Credibility Is the Least Resource,” is America able to separate the increasingly sinister actions (and reputations) of its tech companies from Brand USA?
This whole situation reminds me of the COP26 climate change negotiations that ended in Glasgow last month. Aren’t rich countries, so many argue, responsible for the actions of their energy companies? It’s a controversial question, but one thing is certain: Exxon Mobil is no longer polishing America’s image. As the economic costs of climate change become increasingly priced in, it becomes more of a liability than an asset.
Unlike its oil giants, America’s technology industry does not trigger a civilization crisis. We find their products useful in general. They have generated massive economic activity. And they have positive externalities. To take a not-so-hypothetical example, Apple iPhones are now being used to record human rights abuses posted on Alphabets YouTube and shared on Metas Facebook and WhatsApp.
But when American tech companies spread hatred or instigate violence in other countries, they are a poor reflection of the United States.
Of course, there is no shortage of Washington politicians who want to bring big tech under control. The Biden government is working hard to coordinate with allies on a variety of regulatory measures. congress and agencies like the FCC and FTC stand ready to take meaningful antitrust action.
These steps as well as broader reforms such as the recent global one Tax deal Contribute to alleviating corporate abuse in the G20. But while regulatory efforts are rightly focused on protecting American consumers, they should also take some responsibility for the very real life that is being harmed overseas.
What would that look like? On the one hand, antitrust investigations could investigate the monopolies of technology companies in foreign markets. US standards for free expression may not apply across the board, but regulators could encourage American tech companies to use the same care they do at home in serving poor foreign markets, starting with more content moderation in foreign languages. You should also consider introducing more locally nuanced rules in foreign markets (avoiding the person in charge bidding).
Governments should also work more with tech giants to share information about how their products are being used – both organically with deleterious effects and maliciously by foreign actors. American diplomats on site can regularly brief technical executives on the effects of their products on site and encourage them to adopt less harmful guidelines. You may need to experiment with more forms of outside oversight, like Facebook did with its oversight board. At the very least, they could work together proactively to ensure that American technologies aren’t fueling emerging or ongoing crises, as appears to be the case Ethiopia at the moment. But the US shouldn’t shy away from using its entity list more aggressively to sanction companies involved in human rights abuses.
Businesses can also do a lot proactively. LinkedIn shut down its business in China when it faced increasing censorship on its platform. When pushed, the platform decided that its (liberal) values were too important to sacrifice. Fourteen years after handing over dissident user data to the Chinese authorities, Yahoo has also ceased operations in China. And technicians should also get in touch. Many have objected when their companies work with the Pentagon or other national security agencies; they should be just as critical, if not more, of working with authoritarian governments.
Tech companies have more power than they think. If they let undemocratic governments get away with outrageous demands like censoring content, spying on dissidents, and denying technology to democracy activists, they risk undermining the magic that makes American tech firms so attractive in the first place. We are all poorer for the self-censorship already practiced by American companies (when was the last time a film depicted China in a negative light?). Exporting self-censored technology would be exponentially worse.
Tech executives have grown dear to the heart in recent years defensive their companies (and their monopolies) for patriotic reasons. But if the technique is wrong, it is far more damaging than making an offensive film. Policy makers need to make it clear that when American technology firms expect goodwill from Washington, they should live up to their words and consider how their actions directly harm American interests and values. You have to realize that the reputation of technology is America’s too.