President Biden's first foreign trip rightly focused on the areas in which the United States and Europe can cooperate and address the challenges facing democratic nations. It also rightly focused on the growing threat China poses to our global economy and security, particularly as it relates to technology and the internet.
On the heels of these productive sessions at the G7 and Brussels Forum, the importance of technology will continue to be at the center of the global agenda between the transatlantic allies as talks to create the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have been revived as the proposed Trade and Technology Council (TTC).
The creation of a TTC, which would create real global digital standards that are built upon the values of privacy, human rights, and promoting democratic values, is a timely and welcome development. Moreover, it can serve as a united democratic bulwark against the growing threat of authoritarian governments like China gaining influence in the tech sector.
The question now is, will it result in much-needed action?
For context, the Chinese and Russian governments, among other authoritarian regimes, have increasingly leveraged technology for ill: using it to clamp down on protests, surveil their citizens and suppress online free speech through stringent censorship. During last year's pro-democracy protests, the Chinese government utilized its surveillance technology to track and arrest demonstrators. This vast network of facial recognition technology was concurrently used to track and repress the Uyghur minority in Xianjing. Following the protests, the government then moved to bring the “Great Firewall of China,” the apparatus that censors the country’s internet, to Hong Kong through a controversial “security” law.
Similarly, during the Russian protests against the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Russian authorities ramped up the use of facial recognition technology to track opposition protesters to their homes and arrest them. The Russian government has also increased its censorship of online speech, especially for the LGBTQ Community, under the country's "gay propaganda" ban.
These types of authoritarian actions threaten to spread internationally as the Chinese government has rapidly expanded its influence on setting international technology standards. China’s “China Standards 2035” plan released last year demonstrates how the country plans to set the global standards for the next generation of technologies. As part of this plan, China is aggressively using its influence to define the norms for cutting-edge technologies from telecommunications to artificial intelligence.
Against the backdrop of these dangerous trends, the need for the formation of a transatlantic alliance that supports democratic values in technology has never been greater.
As the European Union and United States gear up to formally announce a new TTC, a new poll from Ipsos on behalf of the American Edge Project finds that voters on both sides of the Atlantic are aligned on a common set of values, interests, and concerns related to China's growing threat to our economic and global security. The good news is Americans and Europeans alike share similar values around online freedom of expression, a free and open internet, and human rights. What's more, they are also increasingly wary of China's growing influence in the technology sector.
The survey also shows there is consensus among European and U.S. voters that China's growing tech influence poses a threat to human rights and national security. U.S. and European voters agree that China "promotes censorship of ideas" (78% in the U.S., 73% in Europe), "uses state-sponsored technology companies to discriminate and repress minorities" (73% in both the U.S. and Europe), and "supports surveillance of political opponents" (72% in the U.S., 70% in Europe).
Voters on both sides of the Atlantic agree that China is an economic and security threat that must be checked urgently. Overwhelming majorities agree that "the way that the Chinese and Russian governments approach the rules governing technology is a threat to the U.S./EU" (82% in the U.S., 70% in Europe), and that "China's growing influence is a threat to the U.S./EU economy" (77% in the U.S., 72% in Europe). Unsurprisingly, voters are also alarmed by the prospect of "foreign countries gaining a technological advantage over the U.S. and Europe" (83% concern in the U.S., 79% in Europe). This is likely because they agree that the more China and Russia control the global internet, the more it will hurt their national security and their democracies.
American and European voters also understand the threat posed by authoritarian regimes governing technology standards and are calling for greater cooperation with each other. A majority of voters in both the United States and Europe agree that “the EU and the U.S. should work together to preserve the economy, national security, and other benefits of today’s internet and related technology” (82% in the U.S., 80% in Europe). These voters recognize that it will be essential for democracies to come together to protect an open and free internet.
As U.S. and EU negotiators draw close to the much-needed TTC partnership to balance threats from China, they must now look forward to action. Without this alliance, China will only gain further ground in setting the rules for the internet and technology in the 21st century. This threatens our freedoms, our values and endangers our global economy and security.
Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.) is the former Supreme Allied Commander at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), commander of U.S. Southern Command and American Edge Project National Security Advisory Board Co-Chair
Frances Townsend is a former White House Counterterrorism and Homeland Security Advisor and American Edge Project National Security Advisory Board Co-Chair