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Opinion

Antitrust action risks holding back US tech giants in competition with China

If companies are forced to scale down, their access to big data will be compromised

In China privacy is not a hot-button political issue.   © VCG/Getty Images

As part of a new regulatory agenda focused on big tech, the U.S. authorities are widely expected to launch antitrust investigations against the tech giants Google, Facebook and Amazon.com.

Though the likely moves will take place in America, they will reverberate around the world, not least in China, home to U.S. tech groups' biggest rivals.

U.S. President Donald Trump's officials plan to probe whether big tech companies abuse their dominant positions -- and, if necessary, curb their excesses.

But the administration should not forget the law of unintended consequences -- effective antitrust measures could stifle the ability of American tech companies to compete with their Chinese challengers. Presumably, that is the last thing the America First president wants to see.

While antitrust has been used to regulate technology companies before, perhaps most notably Microsoft two decades ago, its application against Amazon.com, Facebook, and Google seems different.

For the last half-century or so, U.S. antitrust law has been underpinned by the concept of maximizing consumer welfare, frequently measured by price to consumers. In regulating big technology companies today, however, a new paradigm has emerged, dubbed "hipster antitrust."

Hipster antitrust looks beyond traditional economic harm and includes wider effects such as wage inequality, data privacy intrusions, and sheer size as grounds to invoke the law.

But the wider the antitrust authorities reach, the more likely they are to damage the tech giants' global competitiveness. This applies especially in the key field of artificial intelligence, where the U.S. and China are world leaders.

AI is the engine powering the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the fuel for that engine is data, lots of data. Such data can only be collected at scale, which conflicts with hipster antitrust notions of size. If American antitrust measures compel large technology companies to shrink or in the extreme, to break up, then the U.S. will find itself at a disadvantage to China.

The idea of size is one of many fundamental differences separating Chinese and American technology ecosystems. Chinese government leaders have clearly grasped that scale matters for the technologies they want to dominate, such as artificial intelligence, as well as for the type of digital governance Beijing is striving to implement.

In the U.S., however, the economic value attached to scale is offset by deep-rooted concerns about privacy, bullying behavior and unfair political and social influence. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a popular Democratic Party candidate for the 2020 presidential election, wrote: "Today's big tech companies have too much power -- too much power over our economy, our society and our democracy."

But in China this is not a hot-button political issue. In a recent fintech course I helped lead comprised of students from different countries, mainland Chinese students considered privacy differently than peers elsewhere. Though aspects of privacy are important to Chinese users, many readily understand there are trade-offs in operating on technology platforms.

Chinese technology platforms such as Alibaba and Meituan have developed so-called "super apps" that serve the same functions that users in the West might find by going to different applications on their devices.

A customer has her face scanned by Alipay's recognition system to pay for her purchase in Wenzhou, China.   © Imaginechina/AP

Super apps are designed to be convenient to users so they can handle everything from ride hailing, shopping, food purchases, and payment, all without leaving the digital confines of a single app. This has become the dominant way Chinese citizens consume online. With the most internet users in the world, approximately 750 million, super apps also provide Chinese technology companies an incredible amount of data.

In his book, "AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order," technology executive and investor, Kai-Fu Lee outlined four factors necessary to win the AI race: talent, computing speed, data, and government policy. Though the U.S. has an advantage in many areas, that lead is shrinking, and if China does overtake the U.S. in artificial intelligence, it will likely be a result of advantages in data and government policy.

This combination of data and government policy is perhaps best exemplified by SenseTime, widely considered the world's most valuable artificial intelligence startup. SenseTime boasts world leading facial recognition, which is enhanced because it reportedly has access to Chinese government databases, a rich source of data to further develop models.

Chinese companies like SenseTime have excelled in facial recognition, with some reports estimating that there are almost ten times as many Chinese facial recognition patents filed as American. Chinese surveillance technology is already used in the U.S., including New York City.

This widening gap will have broader implications beyond surveillance, security, and policing. Facial recognition technology will also serve as a biometric identifier for finance, retail, and health. With China moving forward aggressively both domestically and abroad in its use of such technologies, American competitors who are pursuing facial recognition, such as Amazon and Google, may not be able to close the growing competitive chasm.

So while American politicians may see antitrust investigations into large technology companies as necessary, there could be a significant impact on America's ability to compete with China.

Google's former CEO, Eric Schmidt forecast last year that China and the United States would lead the bifurcation of the internet into two spheres. Evidence of this splintering is already apparent. What remains undetermined, however, is which of those spheres will dominate.

Large Chinese technology companies, for example Alibaba Group Holding, are already setting-up far-flung outposts by partnering with and investing in local, non-Chinese technology companies around the world. This form of Chinese technological expansion allows Chinese big tech to shape user privacy norms, establish global networks, and attract more users into their ecosystems, all of which leads to increased user activity and ultimately more data.

While China aggressively expands its technological reach and hones its ability through mining evermore data, it is important that U.S. regulators understand that aggressive antitrust sanctions would risk inhibiting American companies from maintaining the scale necessary to compete with their Chinese rivals.

AI supremacy will be a defining feature of superpower status. And if future researchers one day examine how the U.S. lost the war for artificial intelligence, the hindsight of history may show that the current antitrust debate was the fatal turning point.

David S. Lee is a senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Business and Economics.

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