A Tech Cold War? Microsoft policy leaders predict the future, preparing for a wild decade ahead

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Microsoft President Brad Smith speaking at the 2019 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire / Dan DeLong)

It’s only been a few weeks since Microsoft President Brad Smith completed his book tour, in which he reflected on the most important tech policy issues he’s experienced during his long career as president and legal chief at Microsoft. But already Smith and his co-author Carol Ann Browne are looking ahead to the next decade.

Smith and Browne published a lengthy LinkedIn post that outlines what they believe will be the biggest challenges and opportunities in tech policy over the next ten years.

They predict these 10 issues will dominate the news and have the biggest implications for people around the world:

  1. Sustainability
  2. Defending Democracy
  3. Journalism
  4. Privacy in an AI Era
  5. Data and National Sovereignty
  6. Digital Safety
  7. Internet Inequality
  8. A Tech Cold War
  9. Ethics for Artificial Intelligence
  10. Jobs and Income Inequality in an AI Economy

Innovations that expand access to cloud computing, super-charge wireless service, and enable other advanced technologies will create what Smith and Browne call “a new AI Era” that will herald even more change and upheaval than the 2010s brought.

“The 2020s will see an AI Era that likely will characterize not just one decade but at least three,” they write. “Just as the impact of the combustion engine took four decades to unfold, AI will likely continue to reshape our world in profound ways between now and the year 2050.”

Smith and Browne also predict climate change will be an over-arching issue affecting the tech industry, the public sector, and everyone in between. They expect businesses to lead on climate action in countries where governments are slow to act.

“With some of the world’s biggest income statements and balance sheets, look to Microsoft and other tech companies to invest and innovate, hopefully using the spirit of competition to bring out our best,” the blog post says.

On privacy, Smith and Browne took aim at social media companies like Facebook — though the social network isn’t named — as they made the case for digitally safeguarding democracy:

It’s difficult to sustain a democracy if a population fragments into different “tribes” that are exposed to different sources of information. While diverse opinions are older than democracy itself, one of democracy’s characteristics has traditionally involved broad exposure to a common set of facts and information. But over the past decade, behavioral-based targeting and monetization on digital platforms has arguably created more information siloes than democracy has experienced in the past. This creates a new question for a new decade. Namely, will tech companies and democratic governments alike need new approaches to address a new weakness for the world’s democracies?

Privacy is already one of the most critical tech policy issues of our time. But Smith and Browne expect privacy regulation to take a new shape in the coming decade. While laws like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation places the burden of defending against privacy invasions on consumers, the blog’s authors expect a new wave of regulation to focus on governing how businesses use data in the first place.

The blog’s authors anticipate other regulatory shifts as the public becomes more informed and wary of the technology industry. For example, Smith and Browne say its “hard to believe” that the longstanding legal protection websites have against content posted by third parties will stand in the next decade.

“All of this has also led to new debate about the continued virtues of exempting social media platforms from almost all legal liability for the content on their sites,” the blog post says.

Other key issues for the next decade include a possible “tech cold war” between the U.S. and China, the digital divide, and income inequality.

Smith and Browne warn that the United States and China could be on the verge of a stand-off similar to the one this country was locked in with Russia 40 years ago:

As the 2010s close, the United States is responding with new efforts to contain the spread of Chinese technology. It’s not entirely different from the American efforts to contain Russian ideology and influence in the Cold War that began seven decades ago. Powered in part by American efforts to dissuade other governments from adopting 5G equipment from China, tensions heightened in 2019 when the U.S. Department of Commerce banned American tech companies from selling to Huawei components for its products.

In both Washington and Beijing, officials are entering the new decade preparing for these tensions around technology to harden. The implications are huge. Clearly, the best time to think about a Tech Cold War is before it begins.

Underscoring the entire blog post is the new era artificial intelligence will usher in. From job displacement to data collection, the issues tied to this new frontier of technology are limitless, according to Smith and Browne.

“As the first generation of people to give machines the power to think, we have a responsibility to think this through and get the balance right,” they say. “If we fail, the generations that follow us are likely to pay a steep price.”

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