As the battle for global tech dominance intensifies, so too does the threat to America’s national security interests.
For years, the United States has experienced a collective assault on its technological edge from other countries. Companies, many of which are state-sponsored, have significantly increased the number of resources they invest in research and innovation with an eye toward usurping America's position as the world's leader in the high-tech space. China, for example, has been particularly aggressive in its investment in developing new technologies and, according to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations, will likely lead the world in R&D spending by the next decade.
It is undeniably dangerous for the U.S. to fall behind our potential adversaries in this space. Deterring growing threats from nations such as Russia, China, Iran, and others will depend on America's ability to rapidly advance in the spheres of artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, robotics, and big data. To do this, we must keep our internet open and accessible, protect U.S. intellectual property to promote innovation in the private sector and avoid adopting policies that harm American tech companies' global competitiveness. We must also simultaneously adopt smart policies that make it easier for the Department of Defense and intelligence community to acquire advanced technologies developed by the private sector.
America's unique values allow the type of internet its citizens enjoy – one that is open, accessible, and welcoming of free expression and association. And one that is not used by government to suppress voices, discriminate, or mine data on citizens and eschew privacy and security. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for some other countries. As a quick scan of recent headlines will reveal, there are many bad actors out there. Countries with fundamentally different interests and values often exploit the internet for nefarious purposes – surveilling their people, censoring information, and identifying dissidents for arrest and imprisonment based on political, social, or religious speech online.
For these counties, the internet is about power and control rather than openness and freedom. Turkey, Bahrain, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, for example, are just a few of the countries that join China in the practice of arresting individuals for things they have posted on social media – usually speech that is critical toward the government and its leaders.
Another manner in which some countries use the internet to control its citizens is through internet blackouts. Belarus, which has been led for 26 years by de-facto dictator Alexander Lukashenko, has experienced connectivity blackouts amid recent protests and social unrest over a presidential election that many feel was rigged. While Lukashenko unsurprisingly denies it, evidence indicates the blackout was government-led.
So why does all this matter when it is occurring beyond our borders? Because countries like China have been moving aggressively into global markets, trying to undermine us and erode our global tech standing. If they succeed, our model of the internet may begin to look a lot more like what was just described. What’s more, the technological innovations that keep our nation secure could fall into the wrong hands.
It is no secret that other countries want what we have. Chinese nationals are using U.S. bankruptcy courts and foreign venture capital firms to secure access to American technology. Other times, they try to steal it through intellectual property theft. China is known for this, but countries like Russia, India, Indonesia, and others participate in this economic espionage, threatening our security and costs our economy billions.
Efforts like these threaten to erase America’s national security advantage. The U.S. has strengthened its ability to protect its citizens, defend its allies, and encourage developing democracies, and while there are immense national security benefits of a robust domestic technology sector, there are even more in having the world’s technology sector headquartered in the U.S. If we lose our competitive edge when it comes to technology – or if we develop policies that forfeit this edge to foreign entities – the safety, privacy, and liberty of free people and governments around the world are at risk.
That is why we need smart policy approaches that do not weaken or impede American tech companies’ ability to compete in the global marketplace. We urge policymakers to protect American values of openness, accessibility, freedom of expression, and a culture of innovation that are essential contributors to America’s technological advantage.
Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.) previously served as the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO. Frances Townsend was former White House Counterterrorism and Homeland Security Advisor.