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Why the Homegrown Technology Industry is the United States' Most Important Foreign Policy Stakeholder

Shae Potter | USA Fellow

President Joe Biden hosts a meeting on Artificial Intelligence, Tuesday, June 20, 2023, at The Fairmont hotel in San Francisco. Image sourced from The White House via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2024, half of the world’s population will cast a vote in a government, legislative or local election. By the year’s end, political representation across the map will have been tested, new coalitions anointed, and familiar figures discarded. In the United States (US), President Joe Biden hopes to overcome deep political polarisation and demonstrate the resilience of American democracy in a time of intense domestic and global uncertainty.


The ubiquity of US-based technology firms across global digital infrastructures extends their influence beyond the private market and into how social groups interact. Meta integrates online communities, Microsoft’s Office Suite is the world’s standard business software, Google organises behavioural data, and Amazon reshapes consumer demands. How the leaders of these and other companies view and engage with American values of liberty, democracy and capitalism will affect global democratic outcomes where they operate. In this year of elections, the United States government should recognise technology leaders as important foreign policy stakeholders and consider how these relationships can be leveraged to support the government’s existing strategies on promoting democratic practices abroad.


The uptake of democratic governance by foreign states is central to US interests. Similar systems of governance foster collaboration on shared security goals, increase bilateral trade, improve economic confidence, and establish a globalised system where erratic state behaviour is deterred. Historically, the US has achieved this through top-down regime reform through military engagement and conflict (notably in Vietnam and the Middle East), and bottom-up transitions by funding international organisations. However, engagements with US technology firm stakeholders on foreign policy issues remain ad-hoc. The government’s failure to coordinate outreach efforts currently renders tech giants merely reactive to global developments. Consequently, the US government must leverage their shared power and interests with these firms to co-design strategic regulations, share intelligence and ultimately increase the costs for countries that resist democratic freedoms.



Regulating New Technology:


By international market capitalisation, seven of the top ten companies are US-based technology firms. Their size serves to consolidate industry norms and expectations, including how social governance issues, like privacy, data rights, and operational transparency are handled within private businesses.


Approaching this dynamic through a foreign policy lens, the US government can embed similar standards of how democratic freedoms are upheld within each tech industry. This creates ‘rules of the game’ that foreign companies would also need to meet in order to be competitive, thereby diffusing the ‘US approach’ as the standard.

The imminent elections make addressing the proliferation of AI-assisted electoral misinformation a priority. Anticipating this risk, the US government and its allies should work to develop consistent global regulatory frameworks in partnership with leading AI firms. Open.AI, backed by Microsoft, has already committed to a charter of values that could be formalised into a regulatory code of conduct across allied countries in North America, Europe and beyond. US-developed regulatory safeguards responding to AI-developed electoral misinformation will both manage risk in the short term and define how the global AI industry matures.



Global Dependencies:


Complimenting regulatory efforts, managing the behaviour of US adversaries requires strategically leveraging the influence, size, and networked effects of global US technology firms. Selected service limitation of US technology firms can act as an informal yet impactful ‘soft power’ sanction. For example, throttling access to essential digital tools and services like AWS can disrupt economic activities, making it harder for authoritarian governments to function effectively. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine saw many companies, like Netflix and Apple, remove their products in response. Coordinating approaches between firms can serve as a powerful deterrent, encouraging countries to uphold democratic norms and human rights to maintain their access to key digital services.



Intelligence Sharing:


Leveraging global dependencies targets relationships between firms and where they operate. In redefined relationships between the US government and technology companies, it is equally important to focus on the depth of intelligence sharing. A balance can be achieved between the extremes of no engagement and overreach and surveillance. There is mutual benefit to be had: government intelligence would provide Meta with a holistic view of foreign government-created misinformation and allow it to preempt and proactively moderate content before going viral. Meanwhile, the US government would gain a deeper understanding of how non-state actors influence elections and other important public processes by analysing how users interact with ongoing misinformation campaigns. This is not an argument for US overreach into the media landscape of foreign countries, but rather a method to anticipate how changing technology environments can be routed towards preserving democratic processes, a concern especially pertinent in this year of global elections.



Mutual Interests:


Democratic process preservation is a mutual interest of both the US government and homegrown US-based technology firms. Meta has already experienced operational disruptions in moments of political instability. The government of Pakistan disabled social media access during the launch of a political rivals’ opposition campaign, and the Cambodian government threatened to shut down local Facebook operations after it removed a post from the regime. When countries become less democratic, operations for US firms become more fraught. By partnering with the US government to preserve democracies, US firms will also protect the free market regulatory frameworks that they require to operate confidently.

Recognising the role of US technology firms as informal agents of foreign policy will be an important evolution in the United States’ efforts in preserving the fidelity of elections and cultivating democracies. Partnering with these stakeholders will help to position future technological advancements to align with the principles of liberty, freedom, and democracy. This will transform America's role from being the world's ‘police’ to being the world's digital architect, building and sustaining democratic foundations globally through innovation and technology.

Shae Potter is the USA Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She is versed in global business strategy and leadership through her current pursuit of a part-time Master of Business Administration at the University of Sydney, with her international relations expertise underpinned by a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences. 

Shae has a deep personal interest in US domestic and foreign policy and frequently attends events hosted by the US Consul General and the Unites States Studies Centre.


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