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A global digital strategy could help solve many challenges

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BY ORIT FRENKEL, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR — 03/07/21 12:00 PM EST  22THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY CONTRIBUTORS ARE THEIR OWN AND NOT THE VIEW OF THE HILL

https://thehill.com/opinion/technology/541603-a-global-digital-strategy-could-help-solve-many-challenges

A global digital strategy could help solve many challenges

The United States must launch a comprehensive global digital strategy to prepare for the post-pandemic future. While the digital revolution has generated many benefits for society, this rapid change, accelerated by the pandemic, also has created economic disruption, devastating many in the middle and working classes and posing challenges to American democracy. A global digital strategy, with the right policies, will allow the U.S. to counter these negative impacts and harness the potential of this revolution. It will enable us to create a more inclusive and growing American economy, establish digital governance to protect democracy, support inclusive economic growth in developing countries, and position the U.S. as a global digital leader. 

Launching a global digital strategy is also vital to our ability to counter the challenge posed by China.

With more people connected to the internet than any other country, ambitious technology goals, and subsidized financing to capture markets around the world, China has aspirations to challenge U.S. technology leadership. China already has surpassed the U.S. in deployment of several key technologies, including artificial intelligence applications, 5G technology and digital payments.

Our response to China must start with investments at home.

With low- and middle-skill jobs increasingly automated and requiring digital skills, as much as one-third of the workforce could be displaced within the next decade, widening income inequality and deepening racial and regional divides. That is why we must begin by making landmark investments in digital education and training, enabling citizens to acquire the digital skills they need for the jobs of today and tomorrow. These investments should be augmented by policies to ensure the participation of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, rural Americans and other marginalized communities. American companies must step up and partner with the government to establish and sustain training programs and apprenticeships.

At the same time, we must ensure that all Americans have access to the internet. Roughly 3 in 10 adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year do not own a smartphone. And more than 4 in 10 don’t have broadband or a computer. Universal access to high-speed broadband is necessary to decrease economic inequality and upgrade America’s workforce. Fortunately, several bills are pending in Congress that include the $80 billion recommended by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the deployment of nationwide high-speed broadband, as well as funding for no-interest loans to communities and funding to subsidize internet usage for low-income households. Congress should provide this funding as soon as possible.

America must make other investments to upgrade its competitiveness, including doubling the amount of federal investment in research and development. U.S. federal R&D funding as a percentage of gross domestic product has steadily fallen since 1990, sinking to 0.61 percent in 2018. Meanwhile, China’s government investment in R&D has skyrocketed, growing 330 percent between 2003-2017, and preliminary data indicate that China outspent the U.S. in total R&D spending in 2019. The U.S. can’t expect to be competitive if its R&D levels continue to decline compared with other global players. 

While domestic concerns about how data are managed, with 87 percent of Americans viewing data privacy as a human right, America remains the only developed country without a federal privacy standard. Passing one of several privacy bills pending must be a priority for this Congress.

In conjunction with domestic investments, the U.S. must repair relationships with allies and collaborate to establish a digital governance framework that embodies the values of democracy, transparency and accountability. Top diplomats in the Biden administration seem to be leaning toward adopting such a plan, forming an alliance of so-called “tech democracies” to develop digital governance norms and push back against China’s “tech autocracy.” This framework then could be used as the basis for agreements with other countries willing to adopt democratic internet standards, starting with a Pacific Digital Agreement, which also would serve to reassert U.S. engagement in a region that has sorely felt the U.S. absence over the past four years.

The U.S. also must respond to the threat posed by the exports of Chinese telecommunications and internet equipment in emerging markets. When developing countries buy China’s equipment, they receive the tools to censor and control their internet, leaving their networks vulnerable to Chinese government cyber theft and interference. America must put in place policies to ensure that countries can purchase equipment consistent with our open, transparent and democratic vision of the internet. 

To facilitate this, the American Leadership Initiative, which I lead, has proposed a Digital Marshall Plan, allocating $50 billion in export financing for U.S. companies providing internet equipment and services. This financing would allow American companies and workers to compete on a level playing field with China’s technology companies that receive government subsidized financing, not just to provide fair commercial competition, but to ensure that developing countries can purchase internet infrastructure consistent with U.S. values, as opposed to Chinese supplied infrastructure, which supports an autocratic internet, allowing government monitoring and censorship.

To help manage these policies, the Biden administration must establish a strong coordinating body within the White House. Although President Biden has taken the positive step of elevating the director of the Office of Science and Technology to a cabinet-level position, the administration also should move to establish an Office of Global Digital Policy in the Executive Office of the President. This office should be tasked with coordinating global digital policies across both domestic and international agencies of the U.S. government.

A comprehensive global digital strategy is broad and complex, touching almost every aspect of the economy and people’s lives. New technologies offer the promise of solving many of the world’s challenges but also raise new issues like increasing economic inequality, the explosion of false narratives on social media, and potential abuse of technologies such as facial recognition.

Now is the time for the administration and Congress to launch a global digital strategy to put the right policies and legislation in place that will allow the U.S. to harness digital technologies to their greatest advantage, creating a more inclusive and growing economy at home and abroad, and a safer, more democratic world.

Dr. Orit Frenkel is co-founder and CEO of the American Leadership Initiative. She is a former senior executive at the General Electric Company and served as director for trade in high-technology products at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Follow her on Twitter @OritFrenkel.