Senator Mark Warner on cybersecurity, Musk’s Twitter and killer robot legislation • TechCrunch
It wasn’t Mark Warner’s first CES rodeo. The senior senator from Virginia was on board with this whole tech thing long before he was elected governor of the state in 2002. His time at Columbia Capital found him knee-deep in the mobile world during his years training, including his early support for a telecoms giant of the time, Nextel.
After years of absence, the CTA has invited Warner back on a panel alongside fellow senators Jacky Rosen of Nevada and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico. The program was part of a larger and ongoing initiative to bring lawmakers to CES, as technology becomes increasingly central to our lives and the policies that govern them.
Warner has rightly made technology a centerpiece of much of the work he’s done in the upper house of Congress, from social media accountability to the long-running tech cold war between states. USA and China. He is also chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and was a strong supporter of the CHIPS Act.
We sat down with the senator in a boardroom at the Las Vegas Convention Center, to discuss some of the most important tech concerns of the day, from cybersecurity and TikTok/Huawei to Elon Musk’s Twitter roller coaster and the rise of killer robots.
But first, because everyone was talking this week, Kevin McCarthy’s propensity to walk on rakes to become Speaker of the House. (Note: McCarthy won on the 15th vote, about six hours after our conversation.)
(Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
What do you generally think of McCarthy’s situation?
I don’t know how he’s doing. I know him, because I dealt with him as part of the Gang of Eight, and frankly, my interactions with him went well. [ … ] I’m a little surprised he made all those concessions he said he wouldn’t make, and wasn’t pushed back more by the moderates.
On the 10th or 11th vote, you start making more concessions.
People, I understand, can criticize Nancy Pelosi on certain things, but you could never have imagined this kind of scenario happening to her.
Everyone seems to follow this.
And the fact that it was the second anniversary of January 6. The idea that they arrive at 10 p.m. on a Friday night.
How did you get into politics?
I started by taking an interest in politics. I graduated from college, had no money, and had done fundraising when I was young for the Democratic National Committee and the Jimmy Carter campaign. I remember someone going into debt of $300,000 after losing in a race. I couldn’t imagine that. The idea was that if I ever had to have [a political career] as a possibility, I will first look for a financial basis. I failed miserably in two ventures. The third was cell phones, and I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
You have a background in technology, but I think there is a lack of knowledge of technology among leaders in general, and in government in general. Given the amount of technology that touches every piece of legislation, what can we do to bring Congress up to speed?
I think people try. The good news is that most tech issues don’t fall on a liberal-conservative continuum. My tired phrase is “it’s more future past than left-right”. I think that sometimes makes it easier to find coalitions. With Huawei and the semiconductor – I’ve been eye to eye in both – this tech competition is national security. If we have a conflict with China, I don’t think it’s the one with the most carriers and planes. It’s going to be who dominates the satellites; can you turn off the power?
You may never need to clash if you have a means of communication operated by the Chinese Communist Party which has 100 million children, called TikTok. I think people understand that, and there’s a willful bipartisan concern about China and national security. Both make members more willing to learn about technology and realize that it’s something we need to focus on. But it was an evolution.
You mentioned Huawei. I thought, perhaps naively, that when Trump left office, there would be an entity list rollback and other issues. These things stayed firmly in place.
Huawei is a national security threat. Huawei scared me, being a wireless guy. I grew up in a world with Motorola and AT&T and Nortel, Erickson, Nokia, Samsung. You turn around and all North American businesses are gone. You suddenly have not only a Chinese company, but you have the Chinese setting the ground rules for the international telecommunications union and all these standards organizations, which we used to dominate, and then they flooded the area. We are starting to tell other countries that Huawei is a challenge. But we had no alternative.
You talk about infrastructure.
Yeah. Huawei is cheap and it’s a nut soup solution setup. But one of the things that I think is very positive is that even European companies that have gone the way of Huawei are doing a rip and replace version. I think the awareness that these Chinese companies pose national security risks has grown beyond America.
Is it time to start a serious discussion on the legislation around the police and killer robots?
To be honest, I probably haven’t given it enough thought. Using technology without a few safeguards – I think we’re making a mistake with the notion of “going out and innovating, breaking things”.
Move fast, break things.
I think that created real problems. This is one of the issues that I have argued that we need to be involved with in standards bodies around the world. You build your transparency or privacy values. I think if you combine technology with AI, sometimes you take the human being out of the decision-making. It freaks me out. How are you going to legislate these guardrails up front? We’re not very good at that. We usually legislate after the fact, and I’m amazed that we still haven’t done anything on social media.
This is a topic I wanted to address with the latest news from Twitter.
I’m a big supporter of Elon Musk, especially with SpaceX.
As a technology innovator.
Yeah. My concern with him on Twitter is not to put Trump back on Twitter; it’s because his real source of wealth is Tesla, if he’s going to be so dependent on the Chinese Communist Party in terms of sourcing all his batteries. If you look at the comments he made about the regulatory structure in China, everything was positive. And the comments he made about infrastructure in Europe or America are generally negative. I’m worried about the cancellation of the influence.
So is the concern to use this as a platform to promote these ideas?
I would be concerned if Twitter suddenly banned negative comments about the Communist Party in China.
There was an argument [prior to Musk purchasing Twitter] on “freedom of speech” and how it applies to a platform run by a private sector company. If it’s a business he owns, it’s his jurisdiction.
I think you can put restrictions on Section 230. I’m not where a lot of the tech community might be. I support freedom of expression. I don’t think you necessarily have the right to have it amplified eight billion times.
Should the FTC be more aggressive on acquisitions and potential monopolies?
Yes. Some say we don’t need more laws; they just need closer examination. I think some of the authorized transactions could have been excluded. I think in the long run it would have made sense. You said that tech companies are virtual utilities. I’m of the opinion — and I’m by no means an antitrust expert — that consumer price is the only thing.
Purely capitalist motives.
Yes, but also, how do you measure the price? People say “Facebook is free; Google is free. ” It’s not free. I’m not saying it’s morally wrong for them to take our data and monetize it.
I will say that.
I’m uglier than that. But people should know what it’s worth.
And they should know what data they are giving up.
Alright Alright. It’s crazy to me that we’ve still never had a data privacy law in this country.