President Trump’s Unlikely Effect on the U.S.-EU Tech Relationship

Blog for CFR

The contrast between the early days of the Trump and Obama administrations could not be greater. President Obama started with record high approval ratings around the world, including in Europe. President Trump began by cozying up to the anti-establishment nationalist Nigel Farage and set the United States on a course toward greater nationalism and protectionism. “America first” will rattle the transatlantic relationship and blunt the ability of United States and Europe to jointly lead in setting global rules based on universal values of open societies, rules-based trade, and human rights.

But those looking back to the Obama years as a high point of value-based cooperation are viewing history through rose-colored glasses. The U.S.-EU relationship was rocky, especially with respect to tech policy and ensuring that the rule of law is respected and transposed to online life. Whereas Europeans tend to consider privacy rights as non-negotiable, Americans are often quick to dismiss European concerns as over-regulation not in their economic interest.

The transatlantic relationship on tech policy matters was challenging even before President Trump. Tech executives were often quick to label any initiative under the EU’s Digital Single Market, a policy designed to harmonize rules across twenty-eight jurisdictions, as protectionism. Silicon Valley libertarians saw almost all policy as obstructionist and believed optimal outcomes could be engineered, not legislated. Companies benefitted from the failure of regulatory efforts to keep up with the speed of innovation. Even Edward Snowden’s revelations did not lead companies to reassess their approach to collecting Europeans’ data, although they did create tensions with Washington. In the absence of legislation adapted for the digital age, U.S. and EU-based courts were left to determine whether breaking encryption is legitimate or whether an EU citizen’s Facebook data could be transferred to the United States in compliance with EU law.

Concern with the power of the surveillance state might have initially been tempered in the Bay area because President Obama was “their guy” and understood tech. With President Trump in the White House, that no longer applies. The benefit of having strong checks and balances to limit the power of both government and the private sector is hopefully clearer now for those in the Valley.

Americans seeking to put a check on the Trump administration by renewing their commitment to diversity, the rule of law, and open borders online and offline may find more allies in Brussels than in Washington. Silicon Valley’s ethos now seems more aligned with Europe’s values than those embodied in the Trump administration. This shared self-interest could form the basis of a new digital transatlantic relationship.

The form of this new relationship is starting to take shape. Tech giants are united in pushing back President Trump’s executive order on immigration. Microsoft and Google are leading the fight to limit the extraterritorial application of U.S. law by fighting overbroad seizure warrants. Nevertheless, more needs to be done. U.S. surveillance authorities still do too little to protect the universal rights of those beyond its shores. It remains unclear whether an individual’s rights are protected based on where they reside or where the company that collects their data is incorporated. Given the immense market power of U.S. tech companies, what happens in the United States will shape laws elsewhere.

The manner in which the United States defends online rights, in turn affects the ability of the United States and the European Union to set global norms together. It will be harder to promote net neutrality in developing economies if the new Federal Communications Commission chairman is committed to repealing its protections domestically. It will be harder to promote shared norms for appropriate state behavior in cyberspace if the United States is not seen as abiding by them. Warmer relations with illiberal governments will make the case for liberal democracy a tougher sell.

With the president’s approval at historic lows and concerns about his policies growing, the digital transatlantic relationship must be shaped not by government-to-government ties, but rather through clusters of businesses, civil society groups and governments that share the same values. U.S. tech companies should join Europeans in their calls to ensure values such as fair competition, access to information, free speech and non-discrimination are upheld.

With the change in the White House, the promotion of these fundamental rights might not be a side-project or diversion from a tech company’s bottom line. On the contrary, it might in their own self-interest. The Trump administration may inadvertently re-align the U.S.-EU tech relationship in unexpected ways.