A Question of Culture
Thinking of fair tech in terms of geography requires one to consider it in terms of culture. As is true for many things, the cultural milieu of a place and its people colour how that society, its citizens, its businesses, its institutions and government perceive and process a principle or concept. Differences arise naturally – sometimes these are small, and other times they give rise to wholly antagonistic approaches. And less often these approaches are the same, or at least they run parallel in roughly the same direction. Fair tech is no different – it is not just one thing, but woven into the places that use and drive tech forward.
When examining fair tech through a Chinese, European, or American lens, these differences and similarities come into stark relief. Assuming all three share a common baseline for what constitutes technology, much of what binds or divides these three regional perspectives bears on their own unique cultural concepts of fairness and how those intertwine with their respective regional political-economic interests. Boiling this down to its base elements results in a cliché but very real summary. In China, fair tech means tech that supports social order. In Europe, fair tech supports privacy and human rights. In America, fair tech supports openness and innovation.
We will unpack these in a moment, but what this means for global business is that every company and organisation – especially every tech firm – must be alive to how their products and services either bolster or reduce fairness in each place they are offered. They must also be prepared to either adjust their offerings to meet the cultural requirements of each market, willing to spend long-term resources to shift perceptions, or hive off markets that do not comport with a firm’s own understanding of fair tech.
The Tao of Tech
The last thirty years have witnessed China’s growth from a tech backwater to a major source of materials and manufacturing to its emergence as a global tech leader. Its new-found dominance in diverse tech, such as networking equipment (like Huawei) and content platforms (like TikTok), as well as strength in devices (like Lenovo), e-commerce (Alibaba), fintech (Alipay and WeChat pay), and growing capabilities in artificial intelligence, mean that China’s global imprint on tech stretches well beyond its borders. As such, Chinese concepts around governance and their cultural attenuation to what it means to be fair have become important, and will be more ever more important as China’s economy and its tech businesses continue to grow across the world.
China’s approach to fair tech draws on traditional cultural pillars like Confucianism, a philosophy that values order and hierarchy, as well as moral prescriptions that also permeate Taoism and Buddhism, two other major religious influences on Chinese culture. These cultural poles have pushed a broad concept of fair tech that emphasises the sense of community, respect for authorities, non-confrontational communication approach alongside other values like meritocracy and the pursuit of knowledge.
These cultural pointers are also embedded in China’s current economic and political moment. As the world’s second largest economy with a communist government, a Chinese concept of fair tech is one that supports the country’s economic expansion, while not disrupting the political landscape. One might think of a Chinese concept of fair tech as one that does not upset the apple cart but makes it go faster, grow bigger, supported by AI and a bubbling private sector, but firmly driven by the government.
Tech in China reflects these values. For example, the country’s strict content rules that filter the Internet from abroad, as well as every platform and IP connection within, reflect China’s cultural and political adherence to social order. Or take the example of China’s emerging social credit score and the digital machinery that will enable it, which uniquely draws on the Chinese culture of meritocracy. This is not to say either of these uses of tech would be deemed fair under a Western standard (nor is this essay an endorsement of either), but to reflect on the fact that concepts of fair tech can be very different in different places.
In fact, tech in China is not only viewed as a means to ensure economic growth and political control at home, but also a vehicle to proselytise China’s approach to tech governance to other countries. From Chinese standards to an alternative Internet root system to cybersecurity regulation, China has actively led efforts to normalise and obtain buy-in from other jurisdictions to its top-down, government-led approach.
Europe’s Right of Way
While never a tech backwater, Europe’s recent history with tech has not witnessed the same resounding commercial success as that seen in the United States, or more recently in China. Europe has, however, become a beacon of global tech regulation. This is due in large part to the continent’s penchant to enshrine social mores directly into policy and regulation – a penchant that actually leans towards China versus America. However, the substance of those social mores is very different in Europe than in China. Whereas Chinese culture elevates values of societal order and harmony, European culture elevates values that centre on a set of individual rights. These are then reflected in a European concept of fair tech – one which demands that tech protects the individual’s right to privacy, right to be forgotten, and various other individual “fundamental rights” that are demarcated in European tech regulation.
The leading example here centres on Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which encapsulates the two specific rights mentioned above, along with a set of others. But a broad swathe of European regulation at both regional and national levels reflect Europe’s much more activist regulatory posture in protection of individual citizen interests. This will extend further into new areas, as we are seeing with the EU’s treatment of Artificial Intelligence. The EU’s whitepaper on AI that was released in February uses the word “rights” 46 times in the 27-page document – with multiple references to fundamental and consumer rights.
A paragraph in the AI whitepaper communicates at once both the EU’s substantive interest in a rights-based approach to tech and the EU’s ambition to disseminate its regional approach globally:
The Commission is convinced that international cooperation on AI matters must be based on an approach that promotes the respect of fundamental rights, including human dignity, pluralism, inclusion, nondiscrimination and protection of privacy and personal data, and it will strive to export its values across the world.
While the substance of the EU may differ from China, fair tech in both markets comes with clear regulation and ambition drives their approaches in other places.
Let Freedom Reign
Fair tech in America has deep roots that reflect cultural fundamentals – though an American articulation of these values is very different than either Europe’s or China’s. American values exalt freedom above almost everything else. This is reflected in many aspects of American life, including treatment of tech and its regulation. Fair tech in America means an enabling landscape for free enterprise, speech, and association. These and other freedoms (like religion, press, and redress of government) are encapsulated in the U.S. Bill of Rights, and their application in the realm of tech has a relatively long history, driven by America’s leadership in tech for the last 70 years.
For example, the Fair Information Practices that were launched in July 1973 (when a U.S. government advisory committee proposed a set of information practices to address a lack of protection under the law at that time) set the basis for the OECD’s Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data. These, in turn, have been used and built upon by countless other national, regional, and global privacy regimes. Yet while many regimes have added a great deal beyond the original principles, the evolution of the U.S. privacy framework has been driven less by enmeshing new individual rights into law (like in Europe) or privacy regulation that directly aids the government (as in China), but more by jurisprudence and calculated enforcement actions. While state laws have recently begun to emerge (like California), and new federal privacy regulation is being considered, the concept of fair tech in America has slowed the regulatory impulse, as most rules are geared towards laying forth barriers that smack directly against America’s culture of freedom.
This is true for privacy but can be seen in other areas of tech policy as well – from content to cybersecurity. Even where the government has regulated tech in the U.S. – such as around intermediary liability or network neutrality – regulations tend toward enabling a free landscape for commercial, social, or political ventures. Of course, debates around these topics continue, and resulting policies may shift over time. But America’s view of tech, informed by its undisputed commercial dominance in the field, lays bare a take on fairness that bends towards various forms of freedom. This has inevitably led towards a place that – whether for good or for ill – unabashedly supports openness and innovation.
While America has and will continue to export its perspective around the world, the fascinating dynamic to watch today is the slow erosion of American influence in both tech and policy realms, or at least the emergence of true alternative models, European and Chinese alike. As to whether this signals a normative argument in support of these more ascendant viewpoints is beyond the scope of this article. But in relation to how businesses and governments navigate the complex terrain around fair application of tech in our societies, one thing can be certain. All three concepts of fair tech must be weighed and considered, and adhered to when operating in each respective environment, as none will be subsumed by another anytime soon.