Populist proposals would punish the companies competing with Beijing on AI and quantum.
Few issues unite both sides of the political divide more than anger at U.S. tech companies, whether for censorship of conservative viewpoints or for failing to counter misinformation online. In response to these concerns, legislation introduced in Congress would weaken the U.S. tech industry, ostensibly in the name of breaking up monopolies. Unfortunately, the various bills would hurt the U.S. and strengthen the hand of our greatest geopolitical rival, the People’s Republic of China.
As of 2018, nine of the top 20 global technology firms by valuation were based in China. President Xi Jinping has stated his intention to spend $1.4 trillion by 2025 to surpass the U.S. in key technology areas, and the Chinese government aggressively subsidizes national champion firms. Beginning with the “Made in China 2025” initiative, Beijing has made clear that it won’t stop until it dominates technologies such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and more. Last month the National Counterintelligence and Security Center warned that these are technologies “where the stakes are potentially greatest for U.S. economic and national security.”
Concerns about China’s expanding technological capabilities aren’t merely speculative, and extend into the military domain. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China claimed to have built the world’s fastest programmable quantum computer, a machine that is some 10 million times faster than its closest competitor. Should the Chinese Communist Party assume the lead in quantum computing, the future of a free and open internet will be at significant risk. The U.S. military and intelligence community could lose its ability to communicate securely, as quantum computing can break even the most sophisticated codes in short order.
Similar worries are justified in autonomous systems and artificial intelligence. For example, China’s current domination of much of the world’s civilian drone market poses real intelligence dangers for law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the U.S. and abroad. China’s pursuit of parity or even dominance of the advanced semiconductor industry would give the CCP reach far beyond the drone market.
As Beijing invests in AI and the hardware to exploit such technology, it may someday be able to use “swarms” of lethal robots to target U.S. warships and aircraft en masse. Such scenarios have typically been the province of popular media. As the National Commission on Artificial Intelligence noted, should China gain a competitive advantage over the U.S. in the AI field, “it will also create the digital foundation for a geopolitical challenge to the United States and its allies.”
As has always been the case in America, private companies are the lead innovators and researchers keeping us one step ahead of Beijing. Yet instead of acting decisively to bolster our technology and industrial bases to address the Communist Chinese challenge, Congress is debating legislation that could essentially disarm private tech companies.
The House Judiciary Committee recently approved five bills that would place the U.S. technology industry at a structural disadvantage compared with China’s national champion firms. The bills would limit the ability of the U.S. tech industry to engage in mergers and acquisitions; actively promote the disaggregation of platforms; and require data interoperability that ultimately gives an advantage to foreign tech competitors over U.S. firms.
Despite significant criticism of this approach from national security leaders, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have introduced bills that are nearly identical to the House legislation. These bills hit only American companies while leaving Chinese tech rivals—including those with significant U.S. operations like Tencent and TikTok—untouched. Writing laws that directly benefit Chinese and other foreign tech competitors is not how to compete with China.
Cloaked in antiquated interpretations of U.S. antitrust law, these bills hand increased authority to bureaucrats at the Federal Trade Commission and lay the groundwork for dismantling America’s most successful technology companies—the ones at the forefront of the race to retain U.S. dominance in fields such as quantum and AI. Chinese firms like Tencent, Bytedance, Alibaba, Huawei and Baidu are seeking to supplant U.S. companies and would have an open field world-wide and in America if these bills pass.
Moreover, none of the current bills will achieve what tech critics on the right and left are seeking. Concerns about censorship, free speech and online misinformation won’t matter much if the world-wide tech industry is controlled by the apparatchiks of the Chinese Communist Party.
Congress should instead undertake a serious, reasoned examination of the challenges and opportunities facing American tech. For example, narrowly tailored legislation to deal with abuses, especially by content companies, is needed to avoid situations where the ayatollahs in Iran and the Taliban have a platform, but the former president of the United States does not. Another step: Legislation encouraging research and development here at home.
Finally, if Congress is truly concerned about the Communist Chinese threat, cutting off the flow of Wall Street dollars that is funding Chinese tech growth should be its highest legislative priority.
Mr. O’Brien served as White House national security adviser, 2019-21. His firm, American Global Strategies, provides consulting services to technology companies.
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Appeared in the December 27, 2021, print edition.