Is tech hurting American soft power?

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The Nerdshala Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

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Nearly 30 years ago, political scientist Joseph Nye reversed that convention when he suggested that states exert not only “hard” power—that is, military power—but also “soft” power. Soft power, wrote Nye “When a country gives other countries what it wants

In other words, soft power is a law of attraction, not a force. Countries with more cultural, economic, scientific and moral influence, the theory goes, “punch above their weight”, converting that influence into material gain. This includes everything that is not guns, soldiers, or materials. Queen Elizabeth II is a soft power all-star like Rihanna. But there are also Hollywood, Sushi, Louis Vuitton and Copacabana Beach.


The likes of Broadway, Michael Jordan, Harvard and Starbucks have long made America a superpower in traditional ways, as well as a soft power. But much of American soft power in recent years can be attributed to our technological ingenuity. After all, the biggest names in technology — Amazon, Facebook, Google — are Americans. The world’s rich use iPhones almost universally; The world’s top companies run on Microsoft Windows. And from Narendra Modi to the Pope, world leaders rely on Twitter and Instagram to reach their followers.

In other words, the OS of the world is American. And that means much of the world is based on technology, which is, for the most part, based on American values ​​such as free speech, privacy, respect for diversity, and decentralization.

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Meanwhile, Silicon Valley is probably America’s biggest foreign draw. maximum 40% Among the software employees are immigrants. Google, Tesla and Stripe all have immigrant founders. When I went to Stanford a decade ago, I had witnessed the endless march of delegations arriving firsthand. Germans, Australians – even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – all came up with some version of the same question: How can we replicate Silicon Valley back home?

American politicians are right to point to our tech sector as one of America’s best exports. But what happens when it stops being a force for good? Is it really possible for soft power to go upside down and breach With the influence of a nation?

After all, the harmful externalities of technology have been adequately documented – fake news In India, a gencoide to count Propagation of ISIS in Myanmar, in Britain. Europe is Gaya While Amazon has come after tech giants like Apple and Google for evading taxes and violating privacy under fire For the exploitation of workers in Britain. And the unhealthy effects of technology on children and teens are rightly coming under scrutiny.

As technology is tied to more and more rigid power – and as American supremacy relies more and more on Big Tech firms – Washington is left with a conundrum: If, as Nye, approved In 2012, “credibility is the scarce resource,” has America Brand been able to separate its tech firms’ increasingly damaging actions (and reputation) from USA?

This whole situation reminds me of the COP26 climate change talks that concluded last month in Glasgow. Many argue that rich countries are not responsible for the actions of their energy companies. It’s a controversial question, but one thing is certain: Exxon Mobil no longer burns America’s image. In fact, as the economic costs of climate change are increasingly being priced in, it is more likely a liability than an asset.

Unlike its oil giants, America’s tech industry is not facing a civilizational crisis. We generally find their products useful. They have generated massive economic activity. And they have positive externalities. To take a non-fictional example, Apple iPhones now used to record human rights abuses are posted to Alphabet’s YouTube and shared on Meta’s Facebook and WhatsApp.

But when American tech firms spread hatred or promote violence in other countries, they do poorly on America, and if America is to taste their brilliance, they must also take responsibility for their shortcomings, if their reputation. There is no reason other than that.

Of course, there is no shortage of politicians in Washington who want to bring Big Tech to the heels. The Biden administration is working hard to coordinate with allies on a large number of regulatory actions. Congress and agencies like the FCC and FTC are ready to take meaningful antitrust action.

These moves, as well as sweeping reforms such as recent global corporate tax deal At the G20, move towards reducing corporate abuses somehow. But while regulatory efforts focus on protecting American consumers, they must also take some responsibility for the real-life harm they cause overseas.

How does that feel? For one, antitrust investigations could investigate the monopoly of tech firms in foreign markets. US standards for free speech may not be enforced in blanket fashion, but regulators can prompt US tech firms to apply the same care as they do to serve poorer foreign markets with more content moderation in foreign languages. do at home. They should also consider adopting more locally subtle rules in foreign markets (while avoiding bidding for whoever is in charge).

Governments should also do more to share intelligence with tech giants about how their products are used – both under bad influence and maliciously by foreign actors. US diplomats on the ground can regularly brief technical officials on the on-ground impact of their products and point them to less harmful policies. They may need to experiment with more forms of external oversight, as Facebook has done with its oversight board. At the very least, they can actively work together to ensure that US technologies do not lead to nascent or ongoing crises, as appears to be the case. Ethiopia Immediately. But the US should not shy away from using its entity list more aggressively to sanction companies involved in human rights abuses.

There are plenty of companies that can actively do this on their own as well. LinkedIn has stopped doing business in China in the face of increasing censorship on its platform. When pushed, the platform decided that its (liberal) values ​​were too important to be sacrificed. Fourteen years after dissidents’ user data were handed over to Chinese authorities, Yahoo also stopped doing business in China. And tech workers should speak up too. Many have objected when their firms work with the Pentagon or other national security agencies; They should be like – if not more – criticism of working with authoritarian governments.

Tech firms have more power than they think. When they let undemocratic governments get away with outrageous requests like censoring content, spying on dissidents, and denying technology to democracy activists, they run the risk of curtailing the magic that wowed American tech firms in the first place. Makes it so attractive. We’re all too poor for US firms already practicing self-censorship (when was the last time a movie portrayed China in a negative light?) Exports of self-censored technology will deteriorate exponentially.

Tech executives have become increasingly fond of defending Their companies (and their monopolies) based on patriotism. But when technology does it wrong, it’s far more damaging than making an offensive film. Policymakers should make it clear that if American tech firms expect goodwill from Washington, they should make good on their words and consider how their actions directly harm American interests and values. They should understand that the reputation of technology belongs to America too.
Read more from TechCrunch Global Affairs Project

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