By: Asheesh Agarwal
October 2, 2023
We must resist the incredulity and despair of some who see innovation as an enemy rather than an ally.
Today’s tech landscape features endless frontiers for artificial intelligence, quantum computing and other technologies, as well as policy oases such as tech “sandboxes” and bipartisan measures to check authoritarian regimes abroad. On the other hand, pitfalls abound on antitrust, artificial intelligence, privacy and other key issues, as some policymakers seem determined to kneecap the most innovative segment of America’s economy.
That’s the takeaway from the James Madison Institute’s recent “Florida Tech and Innovation Summit” in Miami, which brought together dozens of scholars and thought leaders to discuss the latest legal and policy developments from across the country and globe.
First, the good news. Technological innovations really might make the world a better and more secure place. For instance, a panel devoted to immersive technology explained that virtual reality tools can increase engagement and retention for students. Via a demonstration headset, attendees could transport themselves to ancient Egypt, climb the pyramids and look inside a mummy. Such tools could enrich any student’s curriculum by bringing history and science alive (virtually). Other panels spotlighted the benefits of technology in emergency preparedness (Florida is, after all, ground zero for hurricanes) and in closing the digital divide via broadband deployment.
Just as encouraging, many policymakers are working with the tech sector to promote American innovation. Panelists praised Utah’s regulatory sandbox, an initiative that temporarily waives specific regulations for the purpose of experimentation. The results have been encouraging; to date, sandboxes have allowed numerous small companies to deploy the next generation of goods and services without spending thousands of dollars complying with outdated regulations. These savings also enable businesses to improve the customer experience.
In Washington, Congress is funding basic research in a number of emerging areas, including semiconductors and quantum computing, while the White House is working closely with the private sector to train the next generation of cybersecurity professionals. Across all levels of government and on a bipartisan basis, many policymakers recognize the serious threats that authoritarian regimes, particularly China and Russia, pose to our economic and national security. Florida, for instance, has taken the lead in trying to limit the ability of the Chinese Communist Party to infiltrate critical institutions.
Unfortunately, there’s also bad news – news that threatens to overwhelm any positive developments. On issue after issue, certain policymakers are implementing or advocating policies that would cripple America’s innovation ecosystem, degrade our national security, and allow foreign countries to gain a competitive edge. If implemented, these policies could cede America’s innovation leadership to China for generations to come.
Exhibit A is antitrust law. The Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division have recently proposed new merger guidelines and a new merger reporting form that, if adopted, would discourage investment, politicize enforcement, and deprive small companies and startups of the capital and technical expertise they need to grow and thrive. Panelists explained that most startup founders want larger companies to purchase them so that the founders can move on to their next idea. Remarkably, however, the antitrust agencies have been collaborating with foreign governments to implement protectionist policies that undermine U.S. companies.
Other policy ideas, well-intentioned but ill-informed, also could stifle innovation. Several panelists criticized some of the more aggressive ideas to regulate artificial intelligence (AI), such as proposals to create a new regulatory agency or establish an AI licensing regime, which could potentially stifle American innovation to the benefit of foreign competitors. Ironically, such proposals likely would most disadvantage startups and smaller companies, which lack the resources to comply with burdensome regulatory regimes. Other panelists bemoaned an emerging “Brussels / Sacramento axis” that has seen California adopt many of the European Union’s most aggressive proposals, many of which target U.S. companies to a greater degree than foreign counterparts.
Had Charles Dickens attended the James Madison Institute’s conference, he might have identified this time as an age of wisdom and a season of hope, but one in which we must resist the incredulity and despair of some who see innovation as an enemy rather than an ally.
Asheesh Agarwal is an adviser for the American Edge Project and has served in senior roles in the Trump and Bush administrations, including at the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice.