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Sen. Warner: U.S. Must Counter Chinese March Toward Tech Standards Domination

Sen. Mark Warner
(Image credit: N/A)

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said the U.S. has to start re-imbedding its values of openness, transparency, and respect for human and civil rights into global tech standards or let China continue its march toward using new tech for authoritarian control and market domination.

Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a former tech exec, was speaking to the National Democratic Institute Wednesday (Sept. 16), where he made clear he thought that such necessary re-imbedding would not happen if Donald Trump remained president.

Warner said U.S. leadership in setting tech standards had diminished under Trump, as well as the Obama and Bush Administrations, partly because he and others had been wrong in assuming that bringing China into the liberal international order would lead it to open up to Democracy.

Related: TikTok Set to Sue Trump Administration

He said he and others thought the Chinese people would balk, innovation would suffer, and the government would be forced to accept greater openness, if only in its own self-interest. "That consensus was clearly wrong," he conceded.

Instead, he said, China showed that innovative new tech could develop within an authoritarian state to help monitor and repress the Chinese people with tools that "would make Orwell blush." He said the idea that the Chinese people's yearning for freedom would lead to the failure of that authoritarian regime and grater openness was misplaced and that, instead the Chinese Communist Party had harnessed that new tech.

Related: Sen. Warner Urges Internet Device Makers to Protect Products

Warner argues that the U.S. needs to fight industrial policy with industrial policy to help U.S. companies and others that share our values compete with a Chinese tech model in which the government picks winners and losers, gives the winner dominant market share, then subsidizes it so it can grab dominant global share. 

Warner is not suggesting the U.S. follow suit, but that the government needs to help companies compete on a more level playing field. He says part of the effort will be to assemble a coalition of the tech willing to reclaim tech standards leadership for democratic values.

But putting on his party hat, Warner said that would not happen Under a President Trump, citing was he said was Trump's inconsistent policies toward China, scattershot approach to TikTok and tariffs that hurt friend and foe alike. 

So, now what?

Warner said that complacency toward the problem under the Trump Administration potentially has permanently harmed the U.S. global leadership position in standards-setting with other governments, not just China, moving in to fill the void.

He said the government, private industry, and the people need to work together for human civil rights, which includes U.S. companies not "collaborating" with authoritarian regimes on tech like AI and facial recognition. He also said the U.S. needs to rebuild its relationship with global allies, saying China could not be countered without help. 

Related: Commerce Expands Huawei Restrictions

Warner also put in a plug for his USA Telecom Act, which would invest about a billion dollars in helping level the playing field for companies from the U.S. and its allies, including creating a multilateral security consortium to develop competitive alternatives to Chinese telecom Huawei, which the U.S. has begun to try to weed out of its 5G networks.

While there has been some focus on identifying current issues with Huawei tech, Warner called that a fools errand. He said even if there were not security back dorrs currently, that does not preclude the possibility, which he changed to probability, of malicious updates in the future. 

The issue is also as Huawei's market share grown, subsidized by the Chinese Communist government, it threatens the viability of potential competitors. If Huawei can get 50% market share,  he said, that could send Erickson and Nokia into a tailspin, he said. "Imagine being dependent on a single source from China on 5G," he added.

Warner said the country needs to "draw lines" about what tech can enter the U.S., but in a way that doesn't smack of protectionism. He said that means evaluating foreign product that runs counter to U.S. values based on transparent criteria. So, somewhere between a hands-off approach and the "everything is a threat" approach he says the Trump Administration has taken, leading to tariffs on aluminum and steel from allies Canada and Mexico, the sort of approach that undermines arguments against products that pose an actual threat.

Asked by NDI's Derek Mitchell whether Congress was prepared to engage in the effort, Warner was not sanguine about the prospects beyond what he said was a bipartisan recognition there is a problem.

Related: Sen. Warner Praises Passage of Device Security Bill

He said Congress' tech expertise level is fairly limited, which was reflected by the fact that despite the abuse of social media by foreign actors to try and affect the outcome of the 2016 election, Congress has not passed a single law to set up some guard rails, not even privacy legislation, or address issues like standards on data portability and interoperability. Then there is what he called the "totally low hanging fruit" of legislation requiring a campaign to tell the FBI if it has been approached by a foreign actor, which has failed to pass. 

Warner also took aim at social media's Sec. 230 immunity from civil liability for most third-party content. He said he was all for that protection when those sites were in their infancy, but that given their current size and influence on what news people are getting, that needs reexamining, as he said is definitely happening in other countries.