US President Joe Biden heads to Europe this week for a G7 meeting – his first official foreign trip.
He’ll be trying to get European support on America’s investment prohibition into Chinese military-linked companies. Tax will also be on the agenda.
But President Biden should not ignore an equally critical imperative: defining the world’s technology rules.
Right now, China has a tech vision. Europe and the USA do not.
That means the West is playing defence on this issue while China goes on the offensive.
Now is the time to change our approach in the US and in Europe. Ireland should not only participate in this change, but should help lead it.
And leading means more than just investment bans.
To be sure, President Biden’s recently-signed Executive Order, bringing the total number of Chinese companies which Americans are now prohibited from investing in to 59, is a ramping up of the US administration’s position on China.
The president’s Chinese policy, which includes tariffs, a blacklist of companies and additional trade measures, is based on defensive measures. He should be considering more offensive ones.
These would include much more support for western research and development, as well as a unified transatlantic approach to issues such as the balance of data rights between tech companies and citizens.
Bob Kahn, the inventor of the internet, recently told me that his biggest fear is of democratic countries losing the battle for the rules that may guide the internet’s future.
But without urgent action soon, China may dominate those new rules and, with them, the future of tech.
If the G7 can agree on a global tax deal, they can surely agree on new rules around 21st century technology.
Right-minded people will agree that ending the Chinese government’s repression of Muslim minorities, as well as Hong Kong dissidents, is appropriate. Without question, we should also all be concerned with the Chinese escalation of its known spying tactics – not only on its own 1.5 billion people, but the rest of the world as well.
But to successfully pursue measures that might help, America will need to secure European (and some Asian) allies to the cause.
These countries, however, have their own set of priorities regarding their own economies. Germany exports luxury cars to China. Ireland’s education sector is subsidised by higher fee-paying Chinese students. South Korea exports electronics and software to China.
So for President Biden to get European support, he must offer something that carries an upside for American allies.
A further complication is that America’s big tech companies also operate very profitably in China. (There would be no iPhone in China without China Mobile.)
The solution here is a combination of offensive and defensive moves. The defensive moves started with Trump, and are accelerating under President Biden.
But they won’t get international support without a corresponding offensive plan.
This new way forward needs to include a collaborative American and European approach to data portability. That means both ownership and a balanced approach to individual rights, freedom of speech, the tech companies’ interests and other stakeholders in a robust economy.
Right now there’s a sizable transatlantic rift caused by Trump. We need to repair that if the US and the EU are to retain our edge, our outsized regulatory clout and 40pc of the world’s GDP.
Second, the US must increase its government’s basic research funding back to previous highs. But this time, they should share this research with Europe in exchange for an agreement on a coherent, fair framework for governing data and its rules.
As I’ve written in this newspaper recently, US federal research and development spending is at its lowest in 60 years.
In contrast, corporate investment in R&D has skyrocketed. At a time when society is more technologically dependent than ever, this is short-term thinking from policymakers.
Imagine a world where America and the European Union share the output of their basic research. Remember, American government-funded basic research came up with ideas like GPS and the internet itself; and without European funding, British scientist Tim Berners-Lee might not have invented the world wide web.
Wouldn’t America be better off sharing new revolutionary ideas with Europe and its business in exchange for support on Biden’s commercial and technological battle with Beijing?
Ireland should lead the European Union conversation with Biden. After all, it is the country that houses most of the American tech giants’ European headquarters. Who better than Ireland to balance big tech’s interests with a fairer society and clear policy?
Someone needs to step up. If not Ireland, who?
David McCourt is the Chairman of Granahan McCourt and Chairman of National Broadband Ireland. He is the bestselling author of Total Rethink.