The Geopolitics Of Technology In 2019: (Innovation) Winter Is Coming

Last year, two big stories dominated the increasingly important intersection of politics and technology: a cold-war-like confrontation between the US and China over the future of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, and a broad backlash against the growing power of digital technology firms.


In both cases, governments responded by erecting new barriers to the flow of information and technology across borders. In 2019, that may create a set of more fundamental and lasting problems (see Eurasia Group's Top Risk #6), as governments risk stifling innovation by responding disproportionately.

Here's how it could happen:

National security: For China hawks in the Trump administration and Congress, keeping advanced US technology out of Chinese hands – and Chinese technology out of sensitive US telecommunications networks and other critical infrastructure – is an urgent priority. That's already led to tighter oversight of Chinese investments in US tech firms and a big drop in the flow of Chinese money into Silicon Valley. The next step for the administration is to finalize new export controls that will make it harder for US companies working on sensitive technologies to ship them to China or partner with Chinese firms.

These new strictures have bipartisan support, so they'll remain in place regardless of any eventual trade deal between the US and China. Beijing, for its part, is more determined than ever to break its reliance on the West for the basic technologies it will need to prosper in the future. This is a technology divorce, and it's going to crimp the flow of money, ideas, and talent between the two countries.

The "Techlash" comes home: Silicon Valley was left reeling in 2018 by a series of massive data breaches and growing outrage over the use (and abuse) of internet users' personal information. This year, regulators around the world will take powerful tech giants to task. Europe is likely to bring the first big enforcement cases under its tough new data protection laws, with the potential for massive fines against companies that fail to adequately protect users' personal information.

Even the US, which has long taken a hands-off approach to digital privacy, is finally getting serious about regulation. With Democrats back in charge of the House, Congress looks increasingly likely to take up some kind of national privacy reform this year. As digital privacy regimes and other forms of tech regulation multiply around the world, it's going to become harder to operate as a global tech company. That's a problem in a sector whose business models rely on leveraging the scale of vast troves of data.

Wait a minute, skeptics might say: Strategic competition between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War put a man on the moon and led to massive advances in nuclear technology. True, but imagine how much more both sides would have benefitted if they'd worked together.

Last week, in Fulton, WI, together with election officials from the state of Wisconsin and the election technology company VotingWorks, Microsoft piloted ElectionGuard in an actual election for the first time.

As voters in Fulton cast ballots in a primary election for Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates, the official count was tallied using paper ballots as usual. However, ElectionGuard also provided an encrypted digital tally of the vote that enabled voters to confirm their votes have been counted and not altered. The pilot is one step in a deliberate and careful process to get ElectionGuard right before it's used more broadly across the country.

Read more about the process at Microsoft On The Issues.

The risk of a major technology blow-up between the US and Europe is growing. A few weeks ago, we wrote about how the European Union wanted to boost its "technological sovereignty" by tightening its oversight of Big Tech and promoting its own alternatives to big US and Chinese firms in areas like cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

Last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her top digital officials unveiled their first concrete proposals for regulating AI, and pledged to invest billions of euros to turn Europe into a data superpower.

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Communal violence in Delhi: Over the past few days, India's capital city has seen its deadliest communal violence in decades. This week's surge in mob violence began as a standoff between protesters against a new citizenship law that critics say discriminates against India's Muslims and the law's Hindu nationalist defenders. Clashes between Hindu and Muslim mobs in majority-Muslim neighborhoods in northeast Delhi have killed at least 11 people, both Muslim and Hindu, since Sunday. We're watching to see how Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government responds – Delhi's police force reports to federal, rather than local, officials.

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Ian Bremmer's perspective on what's happening in geopolitics:

What are the takeaways from President Trump's visit to India?

No trade deal, in part because Modi is less popular and he's less willing to focus on economic liberalization. It's about nationalism right now. Hard to get that done. But the India US defense relationship continues to get more robust. In part, those are concerns about China and Russia.

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27,000: The Emir of Qatar has decreed a $27,000 fine and up to five years in prison for anyone who publishes, posts, or repost content that aims to "harm the national interest" or "stir up public opinion." No word on whether the Doha-based Al-Jazeera network, long a ferocious and incisive critic of other Arab governments, will be held to the same standard.

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