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‘We’re talking about a war’: tech competition between the U.S. and China is in a dangerous new phase, says former Google disinformation chief

December 1, 2021, 3:42 PM UTC

It’s become apparent in recent years that the U.S. and China now find themselves in a tech-fueled arms race—one with repercussions involving everything from cyber warfare to intellectual-property theft. It is a conflict that author Jacob Helberg describes as a “gray war” in his new book, The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power—and as intimidating as that descriptor may be, Helberg insists that “war” is the right way to phrase it.

“I understand that war is a scary concept, but calling it a competition is a disservice,” Helberg said Tuesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech 2021 conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif. “At the end of the day, if Japan and Germany sell more cars than [U.S. automakers], it’s not the end of the world. Here, the political survival of democracy and equal competition is on the line. We’re not playing tennis; we’re talking about a war, because China is using every tool at its disposal.”

From 2016 to 2020, Helberg led Google’s internal policy efforts to combat disinformation and foreign interference on its platform, including state-backed misinformation efforts from the likes of Russia that sought to undermine U.S. elections. The experience informed Helberg’s understanding of the challenges now facing American companies and the U.S. government alike—and he’s convinced that framing it as a “war” is important to prioritizing the task at hand. “Your overriding objective should be winning the war—that should be your North Star,” he noted.

Helberg was joined in discussion by other experts who provided their own thoughts on this tech-driven conflict. “I think the world of national security in Washington, D.C., has been aware of this,” according to Lori Esposito Murray, president of the Committee for Economic Development of the Conference Board. She added, however, that the private tech sector has largely been slow to recognize the geopolitical significance of its industry: “The internet has become, and it is, a weapon.”

Stephen Ward, managing director at private equity firm Insight Partners, said that he believes the U.S. has “actually done well” given its disadvantages in fighting Helberg’s “gray war.” Ward, who focuses on cybersecurity investments for Insight, noted that China and Russia are able to operate more swiftly and uniformly, as authoritarian regimes unbeholden to the same rules and transparency required of the U.S. government. 

“The coordination [with private companies], the speed at which they share information, the sanctioned activities—we’re not playing that game,” Ward said. “We have rules [in the U.S.]; they don’t have those rules. Considering the playing field, I think we’ve done an amazing job as a government—while playing defense most of the time.”

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