The future of global tech
Following their first in-person summit in Washington, Quad countries — Australia, India, Japan and the United States (US) — announced a set of principles that will guide how they design, develop, govern and use technology. These broadly rest on three pillars — technologies should support democratic values; build trust, integrity and resilience; and foster competition and collaboration that drive advances in science and technology. The direction that Quad countries take will have a significant bearing on the future of technology. A key driver of Quad is balancing China’s influence on global security and economy, and the future of technology sits at the heart of both.
In this context, the principles outlined reflect a significant commitment to a counter-China approach. Take, for example, the stress on values: Technology should be designed, governed and used to promote “shared values of autonomy, agency and dignity of individuals”. This contradicts some of the principles China has embraced. It has a sprawling deployment of digital tools that help keep a strong check on the activities of its people. In 2019, the US blacklisted several Chinese companies for furthering China’s “campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance” in the Xinjiang region. In fact, the principles explicitly condemn the misuse of technology for “malicious activities such as authoritarian surveillance and oppression, for terrorist purposes or to disseminate disinformation”. This is a message to autocracies, but it is also a message to democracies to live by their own ideals.
A second core area of focus relates to how the Quad countries envision the future of their tech industries. Technology ecosystems must be built with “trust, integrity and resilience”. Again, the China backdrop is conspicuous. In recent years, all Quad partners have blacklisted Chinese hardware giants such as Huawei over concerns that they could open security backdoors for China. Quad also aims to reorient the semiconductor supply-chain dominated by Beijing. All four Quad partners are well positioned to make a meaningful pivot if they address this overreliance. Crucially, India will stand to gain as it attempts to become an alternative to the powerhouse of the tech industry that China has become. But for that to happen, India’s commitment to the principles will be under close scrutiny. In the short- term, this could have a bearing on how India approaches regulation of big tech which, for a while now, appears to be on a collision course with the Global North’s light touch policies.