Lack of Emerging Tech Framework is 'Weakening' US Stance Against China, Lawmakers Warn

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Both Democrats and Republicans said Congress needs to craft national frameworks around data privacy and autonomous vehicles to counter China’s global tech ambitions.

Congress needs to pass comprehensive federal privacy legislation and develop a national framework to bolster autonomous vehicle production and development to help counter China’s global tech aspirations, lawmakers and experts said during a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Innovation, Data and Commerce hearing on Wednesday. 

Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla.—the subcommittee’s chairman—said during his opening remarks that China poses “the greatest threat to our country right now,” due, in part, to Beijing’s focus on “establishing global standards for emerging technologies.” 

Given China’s growing tech dominance, Bilirakis and other lawmakers stressed the need for Congress to pass legislation establishing guidelines around self-driving cars and data privacy to provide a counterweight to Beijing’s tech competitiveness. 

“Waiting any further on a national framework is weakening our stance by the day, and time is of the essence—I can’t emphasize that enough,” Bilirakis said. “It is imperative that this committee establishes foundational frameworks for developing emerging technologies.”

During the 117th Congress, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.—ranking member of the full committee—and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.—the committee’s chairwoman—introduced legislation outlining a federal framework for safeguarding Americans’ online information. Known as the American Data Privacy and Protection Act, or ADPPA, the bill received bipartisan and bicameral support and passed through the committee in July, but did not receive a vote in the full House. 

During Wednesday’s hearing, Pallone said the legislation would ensure that Americans “have meaningful control over their personal information, while providing clear and consistent rules of the road on privacy and data security to innovators, entrepreneurs and small tech companies.”

Rodgers similarly called ADPPA  “foundational for our global leadership and securing personal information for every American, especially from foreign threats.” 

“We need to make sure that these technologies of the future are developed in an ecosystem that promotes American values—not China’s,” she added. “This is a race that we cannot let them afford to win.” 

Samm Sacks, a cyber policy fellow at New America, told the subcommittee that enhancing U.S. competitiveness on the world stage “requires an approach that is more comprehensive than our response to any single country,” although she added that passing a federal privacy law that addresses how companies collect, process and transfer consumers’ data “will enhance competition, while also addressing harms, regardless of where risk originates.”

“The goal is to address all harms related to data processing and to focus on securing the data itself, rather than a country of origin or any single company,” she added. “Inaction by the United States means ceding leadership to Europe and to China in setting these global norms and standards.” 

Beyond highlighting the need for a federal privacy framework to help counter Beijing, lawmakers also discussed how a lack of federal action on autonomous vehicle—or AV—standards was jeopardizing America’s status as a tech superpower. 

China stands as a major U.S. competitor in the self-driving vehicle sector, and its government “has made AV development a top priority,” said Jeff Farrah, executive director of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association.

“China’s focus on advancement in this space should be alarming, as no American policymaker should want to see a world where China dominates the AV market,” he added, saying that, for the U.S. to win the driverless car race, lawmakers need “to implement a national framework focused on deployment and commercialization.”

Members of the committee have introduced the SELF DRIVE Act—legislation which seeks to create a federal regulatory framework to speed up the production and development of driverless vehicles—multiple times since 2017. A previous version of the legislation passed the House in 2017, but ultimately stalled in the Senate. While the federal government has issued guidelines for autonomous vehicle systems, the lack of a federal framework has pushed 22 states to implement their separate own laws, according to Farrah.

Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who has been a leading Democratic voice on the committee for congressional action on autonomous vehicle legislation, cited a 2020 report from KPMG which found that the U.S. was ranked higher in AV preparedness than Japan, Germany and China. 

“We’ve got to preserve and expand this advantage by ensuring that the United States—not countries like China—write the rules of the road for this new transformative technology,” she said. 

Rodgers struck a hopeful tune when it came to moving autonomous vehicle legislation through the full committee during the 118th Congress. 

“To win the future, the United States must lead on self-driving cars,” she said. “We must chart a path so the road is one we design, and this can be the year we finally push past the barriers which have derailed the SELF DRIVE Act and other legislation from becoming law.”