Success requires Europe to avoid tech protectionism and for the US to end its political deadlock and come up with its own tech regulations, panelists at CEPA Forum’s keynote panel on Digital Security said.

“In this decade, we will probably determine whether we will live in a world where technologies are built by democratic countries or dominated by authoritarian countries,” warned Ylli Bajraktari, a former executive director of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence and now CEO of Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP), a bipartisan, non-profit initiative that makes recommendations about how to maintain the US’s lead in emerging technologies.

The main challenge comes from China. “When you look at what China has achieved in building technologies, be it 5G or AI, we face a serious competitor,” Bajraktari said. SCSP recently published its first report identifying “the technology areas where [the US] must act by 2030.”

Danish Tech Ambassador Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen and Google Vice President Markham Erickson concurred on the seriousness of the threat from Beijing and the need to build a democratic tech vision. Where they disagreed was on how to respond.

While Europe aims to defend democracy, it also feels a desire to retain its own room for maneuver. “Right now Europe is squeezed between two extreme poles on developing technology,” said Denmark’s Larsen. “We cannot be left on the chess board in between these two great players. Europe needs to be a player, too.”

From the US perspective, the danger is that Europe becomes a player by pursuing tech protectionism. The continent’s push for what it calls “digital sovereignty” includes regulations that require data localization and potential discrimination against US companies.

“There’s a long-standing trend but we see it most acutely in the digital economy as countries increasingly turn inward around the globe and become protectionist,” said Markham Erickson, a Google Vice President leading the company’s Government Affairs and Public Policy Centers of Excellence. “Over the last ten years, the digital economy saw twice as much discrimination against foreign firms than tangible goods trade. This increasing digital fragmentation and misalignment make it hard for allies to work together.”         

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought the transatlantic allies together to impose sanctions, it also has sharpened the global fault lines on the Internet government. “February’s invasion deepened fault lines and fissures – it poured oil on the fire,” said Erickson.

Democracies need to impose tech regulations to limit Internet ills, from ensuring child safety to disinformation. “This is not overregulation,” insisted Denmark’s Larsen. “I find there is a genuine response to a public and political concern that this sector has gone too unregulated.”

While the American panelists agreed with the need for regulation, they fear overregulation. Consider artificial intelligence. Europe is in the final stages of legislation. Little consideration has been given to its impact on innovation, notes Bajraktari. 

“I’m told Europeans haven’t done a cost-benefit analysis,” he said. “Instead of rushing ahead, we should sit down together before you start regulating.” He suggested the EU-US Trade and Transatlantic Council would be an appropriate venue.

Similarly, Europe fails to consider security risks in its regulations, complained Google’s Erickson. The company recently published a white paper detailing European rules that it fears will open doors to hackers.

At the same time, the US faces political paralysis. Both Bajraktari and Erickson called on Washington to offer its own vision for regulating AI and other cutting-edge technologies. “We have the European model and the Chinese model,” said Bajrkatari, adding that the US should come up with its own.

Despite these differences, Europe and the US still can team up to provide “a strong defense for democracy in the digital age,” as Larsen noted. On the same day as our panel, the US’s Doreen Bogdan-Martin, defeated a Russian candidate in an election to lead the UN’s International Telecommunication Union for the next four years. The election pitted a Western vision of a democratic, open internet authoritarian countries’ government-controlled approach.

Bill Echikson is the Acting Director of CEPA’s Digital Innovation Initiative and editor of Bandwidth.

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