High-tech McCarthyism: Attorney General Barr and Silicon Valley

Karl Marx predicted that
capitalism would fall not from outside attacks, but from internal conflicts. In
making wholesale accusations and attacks against the US tech industry, Attorney
General William Barr often sounds like a very good Marxist — at least with
regard to alleged internal perfidies by US high-tech corporations.

Following the FBI’s decryption of a suspect’s cellular device, William Barr announces the findings of an investigation into the December 2019 shootings at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, January 13, 2020, via Reuters

There are certainly valid criticisms of US Big Tech companies. Issues related to competition and antitrust policy — abuse of dominant positions, collusion, monopoly pricing, technology licensing, and other potentially illegal competitive practices — must be rigorously monitored and acted on when the situation warrants. Furthermore, when operating in authoritarian countries such as China, these companies face daunting (and possibly irreconcilable) trade-offs regarding human rights and domestic regulations.

But Barr, in recent speeches and comments, goes further: In effect, he charges that US tech companies are disloyal to the United States. For most of his recent speech at the University of Michigan, Barr was on solid ground in chronicling and analyzing Beijing’s predatory state-directed economic practices and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) strategic goal to “overthrow the rules-based international system and to make the world safe for dictatorship.” But he went much further.

Although tentatively praising Silicon Valley for its initial response to Beijing’s Hong Kong crackdown, Barr’s theme constituted a sweeping indictment of the US tech sector.

All too often, for the sake of short-term profits, American companies have succumbed to that influence — even at the expense of freedom and openness in the United States. Sadly, examples of American business bowing to Beijing are legion. . . . Over the years, corporations such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Apple have shown themselves all too willing to collaborate with the CCP.

The attorney general’s most dramatic — and ominous — threat was that Silicon Valley companies might face prosecution under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Without naming specific instances, he hinted at the “possibility that American business leaders who advocate for the [CCP’s] political interests . . . could face prosecution under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a U.S. law that requires people to disclose lobbying for foreign governments.”

Barr, who is obsessed with encryption, zeroed in on Apple for special condemnation. He contrasted Apple’s refusal to allow “backdoors” for US law enforcement agencies with their consent to remove news apps and virtual private network (VPN) apps when pressed by Chinese authorities. He also claimed (without giving proof) that Beijing is able to break the iPhone’s encryption. And, as he has done in the past, Barr cited the Pensacola terrorist shooting and Apple’s refusal to assist law enforcement with circumventing the shooter’s iPhone as a prime example of the company’s double standard. (Ironically, the FBI was able to unlock the phone on its own.)

With regard to Apple and encryption, the attorney general broke no new substantive ground. His analogy between Apple’s removal of VPN apps in China and its steadfast refusal to give way on encryption is widely inapposite. While one might question the company’s decision not to defend privacy in this instance, such a lapse does not match the huge implications of setting a precedent for giving backdoors to the government. As Barr must know and as former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff underscored in an op-ed recently, backdoors for law enforcement would inevitably weaken cybersecurity for all.

[Legislative efforts aimed at creating encryption backdoors] wish away the basic facts of encryption, which have remained unchanged since the modern debate began in 2015: You cannot give law enforcement this access without undermining the effectiveness of that encryption, further exposing user data. . . . These backdoors aren’t the silver bullet law enforcement wants them to be, and creating them would be a detriment to our collective cybersecurity.

More broadly on the attorney general’s sweeping attack on Silicon Valley, he, of all federal officials, should acknowledge that these companies are adhering to the law of the land. If Congress or the administration through (overreaching) regulation wants to curtail or cut off trade and investment with China, they should do so through the regular order and with explicit public strictures.

Further, the Donald Trump administration’s contradictory policies toward Beijing have sowed perpetual confusion for US multinationals. Until quite recently, President Trump alluded to President Xi Jinping as his “good friend” and promised that a so-called “phase two trade deal” would result in structural changes in China’s predatory mercantilism.

At this point, the attorney general would be best advised to desist from irresponsible allegations. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated that challenging authoritarian China is the “mission of our time.” Accomplishing that mission is not helped by intemperate fusillades from behind the lines.

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