LONDON – Tensions over what to do with China. Differences on coping with artificial intelligence. Graphic warnings on how to protect children online.
POLITICO’s inaugural Global Tech Day moved from the geopolitics of technology to granular decision-making on both sides of the Atlantic, as officials and politicians gathered in London on Thursday to talk about the often thorny digital topics that have become central to the political debate a Washington, Brussels and other Western capitals.
Not everyone agreed on what to do.
Republican US Senator Ted Cruz has urged Congress to stay away from regulating AI, especially because – in his words – the Beltway « he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doingabout emerging technology. Conversely, Lucilla Sioli, a senior official at the European Union, the 27-country bloc that is nearing completion of a comprehensive regulation for AI, has praised how Brussels has taken the upper hand to regulate a technology that has captured the attention of the public.
Here are three highlights from POLITICO’s Global Tech Day:
1) What to do with China?
Mark Warner, the Democratic senator from Virginia, made it clear: China is leading the way in artificial intelligence and the United States must catch up. Speaking at the event, China’s leading hawk said Washington must play its game if it is to defend its national security interests against its geopolitical rival.
“China is far ahead in terms of AI self-regulation within its nation state,” he said.
Yet David Koh, chief executive of Singapore’s Cyber Security Agency, urged caution in tightening relations with Beijing, especially as the small Asian country’s economy relied heavily on its larger neighbour.
The concept of de-risking – a US initiative aimed at insulating China from the global economy and emerging technologies, in particular – was complex for smaller economies within the Asia-Pacific region because many had longstanding ties with the world’s second largest economy.
« Our concern is that risk reduction, taken too far, affects the current status quo, » he added.
2) Keeping people safe online
Regulators in the EU, Australia and the UK, but not currently in the US, are moving forward with sweeping new plans to hold social media companies more accountable for what is posted online.
Julie Inman Grant, American-born head of Australia’s eSafety Commission, the local regulator that oversees that country’s regime, told how pre-teens across Australia were being extorted after criminal gangs forced them to post graphic photos of themselves online.
In the first three months of 2023, the former Twitter executive added, his agency received three times the number of reports of sexual exploitation compared to the same period last year.
“It’s pretty gnarly out there and what young people are experiencing is not what childhood should be like,” Inman Grant said of the rise in reports of children being sexually extorted online.
Jeremy Godfrey, executive chairman of Ireland’s Coimisiún na Meán, the country’s supervisory body that will enforce parts of the EU’s Digital Services Act, or online content regulation, said it was less about censoring specific content. Republicans in the US House of Representatives are currently investigating whether the federal government, platforms and outside researchers have worked together to silence right-wing voices.
However, for Godfrey, the focus should be on revamping how social media platforms have handled the flood of material that often pushed potentially vulnerable users to graphic and harmful content.
« This largely needs to be treated as a systemic problem, » he said. « It’s about regulating how platforms deal with the risks of harmful and illegal content online. »
3) We don’t know what we don’t know
Throughout the day, officials and politicians urged a more direct approach to tech regulation or called for more regulation on topics from telecommunications to digital currencies. The US has favored less regulation, while the EU has become the de facto digital police officer of the western world.
But Cruz summed up what many in the audience were thinking when he said Congress shouldn’t step in, quickly, to allay people’s fears about artificial intelligence. « This is not a tech-savvy group, » she told the audience in London.
That theme – of policymakers grappling with complex digital topics with little or no background in these areas – has surfaced repeatedly, as has the hallmark of digital decision-making on both sides of the Atlantic. Few, if any, officials have a technical background.
Julie Brill, former US federal trade commissioner and current chief privacy officer at Microsoft, announced efforts by countries to work more closely on these burning digital issues. But she warned that governments should approach these areas, slowly, to avoid stifling innovation in the name of cross-border regulation.
« We need to think carefully about how we come together. »