It’s About Priorities

Frustration with Big Tech does nothing to fix the China challenge

Imagine a man on a beach who is on fire. Now imagine this man running away from the sea because he is afraid of drowning. The fear of drowning is rational, and a real possibility, but given the circumstances, his choice seems to be a reckless prioritization of concerns.

This is an apt picture of the current debate on the national security implications of Congress’ antitrust push against “Big Tech.” There are legitimate concerns about the influence and actions of American technology companies, but these concerns have to be considered in the context of other, more pressing priorities if we hope to avoid both drowning and immolation.

Recently, 12 national security leaders warnedCongress that it needs to better understand the national security implications of a slew of antitrust bills currently under consideration. Here’s the crux of their argument:

Congress risks undermining America’s key advantage vis-à-vis China by pursuing domestic legislation that threatens to impede U.S. companies and their ability to pursue such innovation. Recent congressional antitrust proposals that target specific American technology firms would degrade critical R&D priorities, allow foreign competitors to displace leaders in the U.S. tech sector both at home and abroad, and potentially put sensitive U.S. data and IP in the hands of Beijing.

Commenting on this letter, I argued that US technology companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple are not only pioneering “the technologies that are essential for securing the people and interests of the United States,” but also that “pushing the frontiers of science and pioneering game-changing technologies is expensive,” and that “it is no coincidence, then, that the companies that have found ways to attract billions of customers — and the profits that come with them — are the ones at the center of these innovations.”

Some have received these arguments with skepticism.

Several American advocacy groups — The American Economic Liberties Project, Center for Digital Democracy, Demand Progress, Public Citizen, and Revolving Door Project — responded with a letter of their own saying, “Big Tech is not here to help national security or the public interest, but to maintain monopoly rents and market power. It is codified in their corporate structure and law. It is the government’s job to protect our national security, not Mark Zuckerberg’s.”

Senator Mike Lee also pushed back on the national security argument as well, saying this is simply a “scare tactic” and that these concerns are “disingenuous and insulting.”

So, what is the truth?

Any honest appraisal has to admit that appeals to national security have been cynically employed previously to avoid accountability. And one would be excused for dismissing these claims now if it was only the companies themselves making this argument. But that is not the case.

The national security letter referenced above, for example, includes a former Secretary of Defense, former Director of National Intelligence, former CIA executives, and a former White House Homeland Security adviser. Unless we are willing to dismiss these individuals as techie shills, shouldn’t we at least consider their warnings?

We also have years of statements from other national security leaders who have served in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

“Our ability to leverage industry here in the United States; our ability to maintain a technological edge over any potential adversary, is going to very much depend on the partnership between industry and the Department of Defense,” according to former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. (ret) Joe Dunford.

When speaking about the technologies that will shape and win future wars — technologies like artificial intelligence, unmanned systems, and biotechnology — the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, stated, “The country that masters those technologies . . . is likely to have a significant, and perhaps decisive advantage.”

I could cite dozens of similar statements with a common refrain: the US technology industry is indispensable for the national security of the American people.

So what about the threat of China — is that being overblown?

Again, I could cite dozens of official assessments, not least the last 10 Annual Threat Assessments of the US Intelligence Community, that argue the threat from China is real and growing.

Where does this leave us?

Put simply: We are in a critical moment where our choices are likely to have significant long-term effects. We should, therefore, tread carefully.

Neither I nor the 12 authors of the letter to Congress argue that American technology companies should be immune from antitrust enforcement. We simply saying that such enforcement must be guided by the law — not political frustrations over the perceived “abuses” of “Big Tech.”

Like the burning man who fears drowning, politicians’ concerns about the role and influence of technology companies are not groundless. But in the context of a growing possibility of military conflict with a nuclear-armed China, we should first concern ourselves with the flames.

This article was originally published on the AEI blog.