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Alternatives to China’s tech authoritarianism a priority for transatlantic action

A world where Chinese technology is used for digitalization creates acute risks for safety, privacy, and freedom of expression, says Rebecca Arcesati. She argues that transatlantic alignment is needed to provide alternatives that protect rights and strengthen democratic governance.

Protecting rights and freedoms is one of the most urgent challenges for transatlantic technology and digital cooperation. The prospects for such collaboration have been raised by Joe Biden’s election and are underlined by the European Commission’s proposal of a joint tech agenda based on shared values, which openly acknowledges the “challenges of rival systems of digital governance.” The EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC) announced on June 15 provides fresh opportunities to take action. To succeed, transatlantic efforts must do two things: hold tech firms accountable and articulate a secure, democratic, and human-centered agenda in support of third countries’ digitization, starting with the developing world.

In May, the European Union finally integrated human rights considerations into its export control regime. The regulation governs controls for goods, software, and technology that have both civilian and military applications. Companies exporting cyber-surveillance items, like intrusion software and biometrics, will need to first obtain a government license. When authorizing exports, member states must consider whether they can be used for repression and serious human rights violations by authoritarian governments. While human rights groups criticized the measures as insufficient, the agreement is still an important step.

Globalized value chains challenge the dichotomy between democracies and autocracies

Tech-enhanced (or digital) authoritarianism has come to be equated with China’s surveillance practices and their global spread through technology exports and technical assistance. Given the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) ambitions to harness technology to secure and augment its power, a sharpened focus on China is warranted. Yet, some experts have rightly questioned the simplistic dichotomy between democracies and authoritarian-minded states with regards to digital repression.

Globalized technology value chains challenge conventional assumptions about competition between democracies and autocracies: while there is a battle of values, its contours are more complex than political boundaries. For example, Western tech firms keep enabling human rights abuses in China. Intel and Nvidia chips power all-seeing supercomputers in Xinjiang, where the CCP is persecuting Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities; Dutch, French and Swedish companies sell digital surveillance tools to China’s public security apparatus; and a recent investigation into Oracle’s marketing of software to Chinese police forces also shows the appeal of China’s booming repression market.

By beefing up export controls, the EU hopes to keep its own surveillance industry in check. Brussels is also working on mandatory corporate human rights due diligence legislation, while also trying to limit tech companies’ exploitation of personal data. Additionally, the EU released a far-reaching proposal for the world’s first regulatory framework for artificial intelligence (AI).

Transatlantic alignment is needed

These efforts are a step in the right direction, but transatlantic alignment is needed to ensure their effectiveness. Both sides have something to learn from the other: the US might benefit from the EU’s attempts to democratize the digital sphere and hold tech firms accountable as a more effective approach than setting up “clean” networks to counter China; meanwhile, European capitals could more actively limit market access to and research partnerships with questionable Chinese surveillance firms, some of which are enabling repression in Xinjiang. A number are on the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”) Entity List but remain largely unrestricted in the EU. Through one of its planned working groups, which will focus on preventing misuses of technology threatening security and human rights, the TTC could help develop common and more effective approaches.

Transatlantic allies also need to provide alternatives to technology tied to Chinese party-state influence and normative frameworks. Chinese firms like Huawei and Hikvision are not the only players in the market, but they have become leading global providers of surveillance tools and platforms. Their technologies are an increasingly attractive choice, and not just for non-democratic countries. While governments like Uganda and Uzbekistan are eager buyers of digital tools for social control, others simply seek smart city solutions that promise safe urban spaces, affordable digital infrastructure, or better public services.

The problem is that many of these Chinese solutions, like so-called safe cities, were born out of an environment where public security is synonymous with political security, which ought to be achieved through “social management,” monitoring, and pre-emptive risk management. The goal is to leverage data collection, analysis and integration to build a governance system that cements CCP rule. Western firms like IBM are routinely cited as models in China’s smart city construction, another sign that simply pointing fingers at China won’t help: What is needed is smart cities that do not trade freedoms for efficiency.   

A world where Chinese technology is used for digitization creates acute risks for safety, privacy, and freedom of expression. The Biden administration is keen to create alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative in partnership with allies through the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative. Providing countries in need with financial, policy, and regulatory support for digital infrastructure and sustainable technology-driven development should be priorities for joint EU-US action.

It is critical to promote synergies between US initiatives and the EU’s nascent digital connectivity agenda, which the European Commission hopes to boost through a dedicated fund and a stronger focus on international partnerships. For example, the Blue Dot Network, an initiative by the US, Japan, and Australia that aims to promote high-quality infrastructure, could be expanded to include the EU. But beside funding more secure telecom infrastructure to discourage countries from using Huawei’s gear, transatlantic partners will need to offer technology solutions that advance development while protecting rights and strengthening democratic governance.

This is an edited and updated version of an article published by CEPA on June 11, 2021.