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.

Every day thousands of people legally cross back and forth between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on their way to jobs, schools, doctor's appointments, shopping centers and the homes of family and friends. This harmonious exchange has taken place for more than 400 years, uniting neighbors through shared social ties, geography, history and, most importantly, an interlinked economy.

Beyond the people and goods, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez also converge in a cross-border flow of ideas, ambition and aspirations that have shaped the region for centuries. This forward-looking spirit is what attracted Microsoft to the region in 2017, when it launched Microsoft TechSpark to create new economic opportunities and help digitally transform established industries with modern software and cloud services. It's also why Microsoft announced on Monday that it is expanding the TechSpark El Paso program to include Ciudad Juárez and making a $1.5 million investment in the binational Bridge Accelerator. Read more about the TechSpark announcement here.

Since Syria's brutal civil war began eight years ago, millions of Syrians have fled their country to escape the bombs and bullets. But hundreds of thousands have been displaced within Syria's borders, where they languish in packed refugee camps. The al-Hol camp in northern Syria is sprawling, and of its nearly 70,000 residents, some 11,000 are family members of foreign ISIS fighters, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The surprise American withdrawal from northern Syria last week paved the way for Turkey and Syria's Bashar al-Assad to move in. Some 160,000 civilians have now fled the border region that Turkey is bombarding, deepening a humanitarian crisis in a stretch of Syria that had been relatively secure since the defeat of ISIS's self-declared caliphate back in March. Here's a look at the camps for displaced people in the area.

Syria is quickly turning into US President Donald Trump's most significant foreign policy blunder to date. It's looking like it might be for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, too.

On Monday, the Trump administration announced a fresh wave of sanctions on Turkey, in a bid to get Erdogan to halt his invasion of Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria. Yes, you may recall, that's the same invasion that the US green-lit last week by withdrawing American troops from the area.

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Mozambique's democracy test Mozambicans voted yesterday in an election that will test a fragile peace accord between the ruling Frelimo party, led by president Filipe Nyusi, and Renamo, a former rebel group-turned-opposition party. The two factions were on opposite sides of a Cold War-tinged civil war that killed an estimated 1 million people between 1977 and 1992. Frelimo, which has ruled Mozambique since independence, has been losing popularity due to a corruption scandal, but is likely to hold onto power at the national level. Renamo, which foreswore violence just two months ago in exchange for electoral reforms that will help the party, will be hoping to make regional gains that allow it to win some key governorships. Disputes over the final vote count and even outright fraud or violence are possible in coming days, particularly if Renamo fails to make its hoped-for gains.

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What's the update at the Syria-Turkey border?

Well, it is increasingly in the hands of Assad and the Russians, who the Kurds have flipped with. The United States withdrawing some troops away from the border, the Turks coming in, but they going to be limited in how much they can do given the fact that ultimately, Assad and Russia has most the firepower and Turkey does not want that fight.

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