Feeling the pinch of rising Chinese tech, the Silicon Valley giants become political to stay in the game.
When Bill Gates’s Microsoft and Steve Jobs’ Apple captured global markets, songs of American tech innovation and entrepreneurship were sung, even though their business milestones had a direct impact on peoples' lives worldwide.
But it increasingly appears to be talk of the past. In the modern world, countries like China continue to reap the benefits of globalisation as much as the US and Western European countries, raising the stakes for the global race and its technological innovation.
There are also some troubling questions big US tech companies face. The questions concerning data breaches and monopoly accusations against Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon haven't been fully addressed, bringing them under the scrutiny of the US and European regulatory powers.
Instead of answering those questions, American Big Tech finds itself promoting a Chinese threat narrative with intensive lobbying in Washington both to get away from state investigations, and to block the global reach of Chinese companies like Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent (BAT), Huawei and ZTE.
Eric Schmidt, an influential American businessman and the former CEO of Google, is one of the defenders of Silicon Valley interests. He appeared to ring alarm bells and speak out against Beijing in an article he penned in February in the New York Times, entitled, I used to Run Google. Silicon Valley Could Lose to China.
“If current trends continue, China’s overall investments in research and development are expected to surpass those of the United States within 10 years, around the same time its economy is projected to become larger than ours,” wrote Schmidt.
The continuing trade war between the two biggest economies, which hurts both countries, also continues to give executives like Schmidt leverage to promote their anti-Chinese agenda.
“Unless these trends change, in the 2030s we will be competing with a country that has a bigger economy, more research and development investments, better research, wider deployment of new technologies and stronger computing infrastructure …” He added, “Ultimately, the Chinese are competing to become the world’s leading innovators, and the United States is not playing to win.”
Schmidt is not merely a businessman. He also currently holds two powerful positions in Washington. Besides chairing the Defense Innovation Board, which feeds the Pentagon intel on how armed forces could use artificial intelligence (AI) in their services, he heads the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, or NSCAI, which advises the US Congress on AI and tech-centric matters.
The membership list of both boards includes top Silicon Valley executives from Oracle, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Google.
According to Naomi Klein, a political analyst and social activist, who is also the author of The Shock Doctrine, No Logo, and No is Not Enough, Schmidt is the leading tech commander of the American charge against China as the deadly pandemic further escalated tensions between the two countries, empowering and enriching the tech companies most.
“First in closed-door presentations to lawmakers, and later in public-facing opinion articles and interviews, the thrust of Schmidt’s argument has been that since the Chinese government is willing to spend limitless public money building the infrastructure of high-tech surveillance, while allowing Chinese tech companies such as Alibaba, Baidu and Huawei to pocket the profits from commercial applications, the US’s dominant position in the global economy is on the precipice of collapsing,” Klein opined.
“Five months after this presentation, in November, NSCAI issued an interim report to Congress further raising the alarm about the need for the US to match China’s adaptation of these controversial technologies,” Klein adds, referring to how aggressively Schmidt raises anti-Chinese sentiment to protect the interests of the Big Tech.
Like Schmidt, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook also appears to run on a Chinese fear ticket. The intention, it seems, is to continually diminish the endless calls for the breaking up of Facebook and to prevent the end of the tech giant’s monopoly over the world of social media.
"China is building its own internet focused on very different values, and is now exporting their vision of the internet to other countries," Zuckerberg said in an October conference at Georgetown University.
"Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values. There's no guarantee these values will win out. A decade ago, almost all of the major internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top ten are Chinese," Zuckerberg added, with a warning.
During one of the past US Congressional hearings, Zuckerberg had also been photographed by the Associated Press with notes, which includes “Break up FB? US tech companies key asset for America; break up strengthens Chinese companies”.
But in the past, the same Zuckerberg has also aggressively lobbied Chinese officials, including the country’s President Xi Jinping, to expand Facebook’s reach in the world’s most populous country, even granting Xi a privilege to name his child.
Also, Facebook and some other top American tech companies have been accused of allowing Russian meddling in US elections. While only conjecture and unproven, this particular battleground demonstrates how the firms will always seek to protect their profits first, even if at their own home country’s expenses.
As a result, some experts and top officials have not been impressed by Big Tech’s American nationalism and its democracy vs. authoritarianism rhetoric.
“They can’t say, ‘We know we’re allowing people to mess with our elections, but don’t break us up. We’re good for democracy, don’t break us up,’” Nicol Turner-Lee, a researcher at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation, told WIRED.
“America doesn’t become competitive by propping up politically-connected tech companies, we compete by making sure the best ideas can come from anywhere and anybody,” said Rohit Chopra, a commissioner of the US Federal Trade Commission.