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

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.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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28: The UK and the EU have again failed to agree on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. In a 28-page document, the British government had suggested further changes to trade rules that were already negotiated as part of the Brexit settlement, but Brussels was not having any of it.

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