The stakes for tech’s future in ’24

The 2024 election cycle is gearing up, with major implications for Washington’s relationship with Silicon Valley.

With that in mind I dialed up Nancy Scola, a former POLITICO colleague who now writes magazine profiles of tech-policy figures like White House deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed and antitrust crusader Matt Stoller. We spoke about the big stakes for the tech world’s relationship with Washington — depending on how the election shakes out — as well as the fragility of the alliance between Democrats and Republicans on issues like AI and antitrust, and the inescapable presence of Elon Musk.

Who are the major figures you expect to be influential in either a second Biden term or a second Trump term?

With Biden, I don’t think Bruce Reed is going anywhere. [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren [D-Mass.] isn’t going anywhere, and she’s always incredibly influential behind the scenes on tech issues.

On the Trump side there’s a core of folks on the right who care about AI, and antitrust issues, and have thought seriously about what they might do if they have the chance.

On antitrust in particular Trump has a lot of similar impulses to Biden. He looks at concentration in the tech industry and doesn’t like it at all. In his first term he took some pretty wild swings at these companies that didn’t land, and as in other policy areas he didn’t necessarily know how to wield his administration super effectively. It seems like he probably has learned some of those lessons and can draw on these new core people who have been studying these issues.

So when I think about who, in a second Trump administration, he goes and talks to, I think of [Sen.] J.D. Vance [R-Ohio] or [Sen.] Josh Hawley [R-Mo.], right, or [Rep.] Matt Gaetz [R-Ohio], and in particular their staffers who spend a lot of time thinking about it. I’m constantly amazed in my reporting at how much power staffers whose names you don’t really know can have.

There has been some consistency between the two most recent administrations’ approaches to tech. What do you think would be meaningfully different about a second Trump term?

On AI it would probably be a pretty different orientation. The Trump Office of Science and Technology Policy did a ton of work on AI and it was very much about how to maintain U.S. authority in the field, and how we stay on the cutting edge of AI development. The Biden White House has been a little more skeptical about the impact of AI. The orientation would be a little bit more towards how we make sure that this benefits the United States, rather than how we make sure this is safe for Americans. I thought it was interesting that the U.S. CTO [Michael Kratsios] under President Trump went to work for an AI company.

How is the tech industry thinking about the stakes of this election?

With the Biden administration, the industry is preparing for a continuation of the work on both antitrust and AI, and that policy being a little bit more aggressive and ramped up if they have the time and the space to kind of pour more resources and energy into it. They’re preparing for more of the same, but definitely with emphasis on the “more.”

For the Trump administration, there are real divisions on the right when it comes to tech. You have folks like I mentioned, Vance, Hawley, and Gaetz, who respond pretty strongly to the idea that the tech industry is too powerful and too concentrated. They want to do something about that using the powers of government. Then you have somebody like [Rep.] Jim Jordan [R-Ohio], who’s critical of social media companies and what he sees is censorship, but doesn’t really want to do anything in a structural way to change how the industry works.

So companies are thinking through who Trump is going to be listening to, and it’s not totally clear. With Trump and tech policy, they’ve been very optimistic about AI in the past, but then one day maybe Donald Trump wakes up and thinks his smart toaster is trying to kill him.

How fragile is the level of bipartisan agreement on reining in Big Tech?

All my reporting suggests to me that it is an authentic reaction against the power that some of these companies have to shape American life economically and socially. I think there are members of both parties who genuinely feel that the dynamic is tilted in one direction, towards the power of some of these tech companies.

Politically, we’re seeing more will to approach these companies on an individual basis, which could lend itself to more specificity in diagnosing the problems and the unique natures of some of these companies, and more of an opportunity to find narrowly tailored solutions that people can agree on.

What tech issue are people not paying enough attention to?

It feels ridiculous to say Elon Musk, but I don’t think we’ve really wrapped our minds around the reaches of his empire and grappled with him as the geopolitical force that he really is.

He is dominant in so many industries, and doesn’t show signs of stopping his exploration of everything from urban transportation to brain implants to putting satellites all over the globe. Starlink is a side company for him.

Whoever is the next president is going to have to grapple with the reach that he has, and the ability to shape life around the planet with a decision made in the middle of the night.

Then on a completely different side of things, how the government buys and builds technology. I started caring about tech policy in the first place because as a baby Hill staffer I saw how the government bought and built technology, and it wasn’t great. We should be spending a lot more time covering procurement, it’s just hard to get people interested in the topic.

The European Union’s AI Act is nearing the finish line, but the outcome is still very much in doubt.

POLITICO’s Gian Volpicelli reported today for European Pro readers on the race to finalize the act before the end of the year. Although Italian lawmaker Brando Benifei told Gian it’s “not the end of the world” if the law’s text isn’t finalized during today’s fifth round of negotiations, there are only six months until the upcoming European election, which could throw the entire process into turmoil again. But, according to Gian’s reporting, discussions are likely to continue through 2024 due to opposition to the current version of the law from Germany and France.

That opposition is based on proposed restrictions on powerful “foundation models,” which those countries believe could stymie innovation. Romanian lawmaker Dragos Tudorache disagrees: “We want to see very powerful models developed in Europe. But we don’t think that attaching some obligations to the very top of this industry, in terms of potential right now, will actually stifle innovation,” he told Gian. “We’d only be looking at the very top [foundation models]. And if you get to that level, the obligations are common sense: You [are able to] grow to that level, and you tell me you cannot afford to have a risk management system in place?”

Parliament is also proposing an outright ban on AI-powered facial recognition technology citing privacy concerns, but that remains a hard sell for EU member governments who see it as an important tool for law enforcement.

Speaking of the French: POLITICO’s Océane Herrero and Gian Volpicelli reported today on the clash between the French government and European Union internal market chief Thierry Breton, a Frenchman himself.

France’s desire to attract AI talent and investment is a major part of its resistance toward the limitations on foundation models in the European Union’s proposed AI Act, but Breton has specifically called out French-based AI developer Mistral as part of the alleged problem of Big Tech evading accountability.

“We kind of had the idea that he was on our side,” one anonymous French tech employee told Océane and Gian. “Obviously, Mistral AI represents private interests — but its work is just as open source as Kyutai’s,” they said, citing a rival company Breton compared favorably to Mistral.

French President Emmanuel Macron lobbied for the country to host the third AI Safety Summit next year, and has advocated for a global approach to AI regulation that would give French industry a freer hand.