This wasn’t Mark Warner’s first CES rodeo. The senior senator from Virginia was on board with this whole tech thing well before being elected the state’s governor back in 2002. His time at Columbia Capital found him knee-deep in the mobile world during its formative years, including his early support of one-time telecom giant, Nextel.
After years away, the CTA invited Warner back to appear on a panel alongside fellow senators Jacky Rosen of Nevada and New Mexico’s Ben Ray Luján. The program was part of a broader, on-going initiate to bring lawmakers to CES, as technology grows ever more central in our lives and the policies that govern them.
Warner has, fittingly, made tech a centerpiece of much of the work he’s done in Congress’ upper chamber, from social media accountability to the long-standing technological cold war between the U.S. and China. He also serves as the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and was a strong proponent of the CHIPS act.
We sat down with the senator in a Las Vegas Convention Center meeting room, to discuss some of the day’s most important technology concerns, from cybersecurity and TikTok/Huawei to Elon Musk’s Twitter roller coaster and the rise of killer robots.
But first, because it’s all anyone was speaking about this week, Kevin McCarthy's propensity for stepping on rakes on the way to becoming House Speaker. (Note: McCarthy won on the 15th vote, roughly six hours after our conversation.)
(Editor's note: This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.)
At CES this week learning about the future of tech to better be able to legislate for tomorrow’s tech landscape.
Tried Magic Leap's glasses to see if I could look into the future and find out when we’ll have a Speaker, but turns out they don’t work that way! pic.twitter.com/bfal1fVMwP
— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) January 6, 2023
What are your thoughts generally on the McCarthy situation?
I don’t know how he gets out of this. I know him, because I’ve dealt with him as part of the Gang of Eight, and frankly, my interactions with him have been fine. [ … ] I’m a little surprised that he’s made all of these concessions he said he wouldn’t make, and he’s not had more push back from the moderates.
By the 10th or 11th vote, you start making more concessions.
People, I understand, can be critical of Nancy Pelosi on things, but you could have never have envisioned this kind of scenario happening to her.
Everyone seems to be following this.
And the fact that it was the two-year anniversary of January 6. The idea that they’re coming in at 10 p.m. on a Friday night.
How did you make the jump into politics?
I started with the interest in politics. I graduated from college, I had no money, and I had done fundraising as a young guy for the Democratic National Committee and Jimmy Carter’s campaign. I remember somebody who went into $300,000 debt after he lost in a race. I couldn’t imagine that. The idea was that, if I’m ever going to have [a political career] as a possibility, I’m going to go and get a financial base first. I failed miserably at two businesses. The third was cell phones, and I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
You have a technology background, but I think there’s a lack of tech knowledge in leaders generally, and in the government more broadly. Given how much tech touches every piece of legislation, what can we do to catch congress up to speed?
I think people are trying. The good news is that most of the technology issues don’t fall on a liberal-conservative continuum. My tired phrase is, "it’s more future-past than left-right." I think that makes it easier at times to find coalitions. With Huawei and the semi-conductor – I’ve been up to my eyes in both of them – that technology competition is national security. If we have a conflict with China, I don’t believe it’s going to be who has the most aircraft carriers and airplanes. It’s going to be who dominates satellites; can you turn off the power?
You may never need to get to conflict if you have a communications medium operated by the China Communist Party that has 100 million kids on it, called TikTok. I think people are getting that, and there is a willing bipartisan concern about China and national security. Both make members more willing to learn about technology and realize it’s something that we have to focus on. But it’s been an evolution.
You mentioned Huawei. I, perhaps naively, thought that when Trump left office, there would be a rolling back of the entity list and other issues. These things have remained firmly in place.
Huawei’s 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 of the North American companies are gone. You suddenly not only have a Chinese company, but you have the Chinese setting the ground rules for the international telecommunications union and all of these standard-setting bodies, which we used to dominate, and then they flooded the zone. We’re starting to tell other countries Huawei’s a challenge. But we didn’t have any alternatives.
You’re talking about infrastructure.
Yeah. Huawei’s cheap and it’s a soup to nuts solution setup. But one of the things that I think is very positive is that even the European companies that went down the Huawei path are doing some version of rip and replace. I think the awareness that these Chinese companies come with national security risks has grown beyond America.
Is it time to start having a serious discussion about legislation around police and killer robots?
Truthfully, I have probably not thought about it enough. Using technology without some guardrails — I think we make a mistake with the notion of "go out and innovate, break things."
Move fast, break things.
I think that’s created some real issues. It’s one of the issues I’ve made the pitch that we need to be involved in the standard-setting entities around the world. You build your values of transparency or privacy protection. I do think that if you combine technology with AI, you sometimes take the human being out of the decision-making. That scares the dickens out of me. How will you go about legislating those guardrails on the front end? We’re not very good at it. We usually legislate after the fact, and it blows my mind that we still haven’t done a single thing on social media.
That’s a subject I wanted to broach with the recent Twitter news.
I’m a big supporter of Elon Musk, especially with SpaceX.
As a technological innovator.
Yeah. My concern with him on Twitter is not about putting Trump back on Twitter; it’s because his real source of wealth is Tesla, whether he’s going to be dependent so much on the Communist Party of China in terms of the source of all of his batteries. If you look at the comments he’s made about the regulatory structure in China, it’s all been positive. And the comments he’s made about infrastructure in Europe or America are generally negative. I worry about undo influence.
So the worry is him using this as a platform to promote these ideas?
I would be concerned that suddenly Twitter prohibits negative comments about the Communist Party in China.
There was an argument [prior to Musk purchasing Twitter] about "free speech" and how it applies to a platform run by a private sector company. If it’s a company he owns, it’s his purview.
I think you can put some restraints on Section 230. I’m not where a lot of the tech community might be. I support free speech. I think you don’t have the right to necessarily have it amplified eight billion times.
Should the FTC be more aggressive with regard to acquisitions and potential monopolies?
Yes. There are some that argue we don’t need additional legislation; they just need a stronger review. I do think that some of the transactions that were allowed could have been precluded. I think, in the long run, it would have made sense. You made the comment that tech companies are virtual utilities. I am of the view — and I’m not an antitrust expert by any means — that consumer price being the only thing.
Purely capitalistic motives.
Yeah, but also, how do you measure price? People say "Facebook is free; Google’s free." It’s not free. I’m not saying it’s morally bad they take our data and monetize it.
I’ll say that.
I’m more squishy than that. But people ought to know what it’s worth.
And they ought to know what data they’re giving up.
Right, right. It’s crazy to me that we’ve still never had a data privacy law in this country.