, Episode

Jacob Helberg on why the new weapons of war are everyday technologies

Interview by
October 20, 2021

In this episode...

Jacob Helberg from Stanford University's Center on Geopolitics and Technology introduces POWER PLAYS listeners to the global tech-fueled struggle between the U.S.-led democracies and China-led autocracies that is redefining international politics. The stakes of this "Gray War", as Helberg terms it in his new book THE WIRES OF WAR, are high and time is running out for America to address and win this war. If China reaches a point of self-sufficiency and what Helberg describes in the show as "escape velocity", it will be too late for the U.S. to prevent China from achieving its political vision of a more autocratic world safe for the Chinese Communist Party.

Jacob Helberg

From 2016 to 2020, Jacob Helberg led Google's internal product policy efforts to combat disinformation and foreign interference. He is now a senior adviser at the Stanford University Center on Geopolitics and Technology.


Intro: [00:00:07] You're listening to POWER PLAYS, the podcast hosting conversations between policymakers, engineers, business leaders and others who are influencing the Internet's infrastructure and institutions in ways that impact all of us today. Here's your host, Ayden Férdeline. [00:00:24][17.3]

Ayden Férdeline: [00:00:29] Welcome to a very special episode of POWER PLAYS, I'm Ayden Férdeline. Consider this a bonus episode. We're between seasons and season three is not coming out until next year, but today's guest has insights that are so timely I couldn't possibly hold our conversation over for a few more months. Today on the show, we have Jacob Helberg, a senior advisor at Stanford University's Center on Geopolitics and Technology and the author of a new book The Wires of War from Simon and Schuster's Avid Reader Press. Before he joined Stanford, Jacob Helberg worked at Google, where he overhauled how the company dealt with foreign, state-backed information operations around the world. His experience working with the controversial Project Dragonfly, which was Google's failed attempt to reenter the Chinese market, convinced him the geopolitical struggle escalating between Washington and Beijing couldn't be won without Silicon Valley's help. Jacob Helberg, a very warm welcome today to POWER PLAYS. It's great to have you here. Now, a question that I always ask guests on POWER PLAYS is an icebreaker, and that is, what is a contrarian thought that you have about business or culture that others might disagree with you on? [00:01:39][70.3]

Jacob Helberg: [00:01:40] Ayden, thanks so much for having me. I think a contrarian thought and it's becoming a little bit less contrarian nowadays, but it used to be when I first started writing my book. But it's that China has been in a gray war with the United States for several years and is using technology to erode democracy around the world. [00:01:56][15.9]

Ayden Férdeline: [00:01:57] Let's start with that term that you just used there. A gray war. As you wrote in The Wires of War, the U.S. is essentially in a Cold War with China or more precisely, a gray war with China. What does that term mean? [00:02:10][12.9]

Jacob Helberg: [00:02:11] So I refer to the term gray war to talk about the fact, a new trend that I've seen working in the tech industry and really taking hold over the last few years. What we're seeing today is that great powers are increasingly subverting and leveraging technologies that make up our everyday lives to advance their interests and weaken their adversaries and what military experts call the gray zone between the conventional thresholds of war and peace. They're competing over trade routes and fiber optic internet cables. Gray zone competition and conflict are now a pervasive and predominant feature of international politics, and that's why I decided to use the term gray war and it's in, in military strategy, gray zone conflict basically refers to attacking an adversary just beneath the conventional threshold of war. So the best way to think about that is if you carry out a massive cyber attack that has a lot of impact on in terms of monetary value or strategic value but you're not causing loss of life or physical destruction, that would absolutely count as a gray zone conflict. It's a state of un-peace that doesn't rise to the level of a shooting war. [00:03:26][75.1]

Ayden Férdeline: [00:03:27] At what time does it become a shooting war or a hot war though? China of late has been increasingly provocative towards Taiwan. When does all of this become an existential threat? And not just to democracy in the West, but particularly to those islands and countries that border China. [00:03:46][19.2]

Jacob Helberg: [00:03:47] Well, you're right to ask that question because one of the aspects about this concept that I write about in my book and the reason that I like the term gray war is that war is very much a spectrum. And there are a number of past philosophers that have talked that have defined war as politics by other means. And so if war and peace are a spectrum, it's not binary. It is a constant state of flux. And so in the Strait of Taiwan, you're seeing a situation where, for example, a lot of Taiwanese, you know, defense officials are characterized, are using gray zone warfare, the expression gray zone warfare, to refer to China's incursions in Taiwanese airspace when they provocatively send airplanes over Taiwanese, sovereign Taiwanese airspace. And because it's, you know, it's not an official act of war. They're not bombing anything, but it's kind of like harassment and ah. And so it is, you know, you could envision a scenario like, for example, when China did a cyber attack against India and took out power on 20 million people. I mean, you could envision a scenario where there could potentially be an actual, you know, one of these days you could see a gray zone attack that actually has an impact that's severe enough that it ends up provoking and triggering an actual war. [00:05:24][97.1]

Ayden Férdeline: [00:05:25] Do we have the agency to leave this gray zone - to exit from this gray war - if we want to? And by we here, I mean the United States. [00:05:34][8.8]

Jacob Helberg: [00:05:35] I think we have the agency to. I think the question is just because, you know, it's really, to use the simple expression, you know, it takes two to tango. It really doesn't just depend on what we do. It also depends on what China wants to do moving forward. And so we have to be able to have a really clear eyed view of what their, you know, next two to three to four year game plan is so that we can kind of anticipate what our chess moves are going to be. Ultimately, if our goal is to, we have a dual objective in the West, which is we want to preserve democracy and we want to avoid a war because both outcomes are would be extremely negative to our way of life. And so if you want to achieve those two objectives, we have to be really, really smart about how do you defend democracy and counter the pro-autocracy agenda that China is pushing across the world, while at the same time delivering on your second objective, which is preventing a war? And so, where I land on this issue and as I talk about in the book, in my view, we have tried the, you know, softer approach of sitting at a table with China and trying to talk things out and diplomacy and good faith. And that hasn't really gotten us very far. That has gotten us a rapid escalation of military buildups, artificial islands in the South China Sea. I mean, a vast intellectual property theft that amount to, by some estimates, to three trillion dollars between 2008 and 2018. So with that result, I think it's only natural to conclude that approach didn't work. Let's try something new, which is, you know, let's go back to what worked during the Cold War, which was basically deterrence. It is based on the assumption that actors are rational actors and autocratic actors are not going to make aggressive moves if they think that the costs outweigh the benefits. And so if you want to make the costs outweigh the benefits, you have to be credible about your ability to inflict costs. And that is, basically means that you have to have a configuration, a strategic configuration in the East Asia Pacific that makes it clear to China that their path to an invasion of Taiwan is highly unlikely to be successful and very costly for them. [00:08:13][158.2]

Ayden Férdeline: [00:08:14] Let's return to demonstrating credibility in a moment. But first, let's set the scene a little. In your book, you say that the new weapons of war are everyday technologies, they're dual-use technologies developed by private companies that have legitimate civilian use cases. So they give aggressors plausible deniability, in a sense, for their involvement in an attack which reduces the risk of a costly retaliation. In other words, they are far less physically destructive than conventional weapons are, but far more usable. Is that a correct summary? Is this modern warfare today? [00:08:54][39.8]

Jacob Helberg: [00:08:54] It absolutely is. I mean, unlike in the days of the first Cold War. Today, the new tech-fueled gray war is primarily being fought with commercial dual-use technologies that are developed by private companies. And so unlike conventional weapons like missiles, these new, very potent technologies allow an aggressor to more easily deny its involvement in an attack and therefore reduce the risk of a costly retaliation. So, in other words, they're far less physically destructive than conventional weapons, but they're far more usable against an adversary. And so one of the trends that I talked about in the book is that this basically creates a usability destructiveness  paradox where there is an inverse relationship between the degree of destructiveness of a lot of modern weapons and their practical usability for the conduct of day to day political warfare. The more destructive, the more physically destructive a weapon is, the less practically usable it is our day to day basis for the conduct of political warfare. And so that is why you're seeing a lot of governments that are rallying behind using a lot of these dual-use technologies because it's very usable, it's very high impact and it's hard to attribute. [00:10:16][81.1]

Ayden Férdeline: [00:10:16] What can be done to respond to some of these high-impact and hard-to-attribute attacks? How can the U.S., for example, strengthen its hand and safeguard the cyber security of its critical infrastructure? [00:10:28][11.5]

Jacob Helberg: [00:10:30] I'll talk about two big things and then one very tactical thing that I still think is very important and worth mentioning. So for the two big ticket items, the U.S. should seek to de-globalize what I call China's Eye of Sauron. So, you know, the Eye of Sauron sounds a bit like a dramatic label, but basically it is a label that I used to refer to the fact that China is exporting a lot of its physical Internet infrastructure to other countries. And the reason that I call it the Eye of Sauron is because they have a model that basically allows them in a very centralized way to have backdoors into a lot of that infrastructure. So similar to how the Eye of Sauron was described in Lord of the Rings, you know that where it was an eye seeing all things in all places at all times. Here, in a very dystopian way, you have a, you know, relatively analogous paradigm where China is effectively trying to de-anonymize the Internet at home and is trying to export its infrastructure abroad in order to be able to see all things in all places at all times. And so the best way to undercut their capabilities in the gray war is to de-globalize their reach at the hardware level. The second thing that we can do is, we need to figure out a way to re-shore our supply chains outside of China. Some of it can come back to the U.S. Some of it, you know, for economic reasons, may not come back to the U.S. It may go to other, you know, third party countries. But getting our supply chains outside of the hands of the Chinese government is critical for two reasons. The first is as a country, we need to be able to rely on being able to have access to our supply chains, which in China because our relationship is on a very rocky ground, they could tomorrow tell Apple that Apple no longer has access to the Foxconn supply chains in China, and that would be an absolute disaster for us. So access is the number one point. The second point is integrity. We need to be able to rely on the fact that we are building circuit boards and a lot of other advanced electronics that don't have backdoors into them. So access and integrity should be at the heart of how we think about the configuration of our supply chains. And then the last and third point that I was going to mention is, I'm very much in favor of an outbound CFIUS framework where basically the U.S. government should absolutely have the ability to review on grounds of national security any outbound investment from the United States in to China. The same way that we currently have a framework that gives the U.S. government the ability to review inbound investment from overseas into the United States on grounds of national security. I think the fact that we have had so many companies pour so many billions of dollars into the Chinese market has created very, very complicated national security issues for the U.S. that we are now wrestling with now that our relationship is deteriorating. [00:13:48][198.4]

Ayden Férdeline: [00:13:50] In the first half of your answer, you spoke about the critical infrastructure that China is exporting. And I'm going to be really provocative with this question. Is that necessarily problematic? Is it OK for China to have its own conception of what the internet is and what technology can be? China, after all, has its own style of government? Is it legitimate for China to try to share its own values with other countries that may share or may dream of having its same style of government? [00:14:24][33.7]

Jacob Helberg: [00:14:25] Well, I think you're touching upon such an important question that I always love engaging with. Let's think about what values specifically are we talking about? Are we talking about, you know, values about Chinese culture or are we talking about authoritarian systems of control pushed by the CCP, which are not at all inherent to Chinese culture? I mean, China's current Xi Jinping's current model of authoritarianism has nothing inherently Chinese to it. It is simply an authoritarian system that he has worked very hard to consolidate. But he obviously wants people to conflate the two. I always find it very interesting and a little bit perplexing how in the. It is a true tribute to democracy when we have people in the, enjoying the civil liberties of the West, using our free, uncensored information environment to basically applaud the Chinese system and criticize our democracy. I would love to see them have the ability to do that in the very system that they are celebrating. They would probably not be nearly as well received. Wanting to be able to continue having these agreements is specifically the very proof that these disagreements are worth having. This isn't a conversation about China trying to export its values. It's really about universal systems of power relationships. In the U.S., we have a system where power is decentralized between different branches of government, between, you know, between society. In China, it's a system that's very centralized. And so the question is just what system do you want to operate in? Because both systems are not fundamentally not compatible with one another? And ultimately, I think if we want to live in a system where we believe that people should be able to have these conversations like the one that we're having right now and debate in earnest about ideas, that is a system that is inherently in favor of a decentralized free system. [00:16:47][141.5]

Ayden Férdeline: [00:16:47] I take the point that you make, and it's a good one, that the CCP's values are not necessarily Chinese values. I'm curious what you think, though, as to whether we in the West have created an opportunity for the CCP to impose its autocratic values on the Internet, not just domestically within China, but further afield by perhaps not being as diligent as we should have been in addressing some of the shortcomings in how the Internet and other technologies are today. I'm thinking here the continued privacy violations, the continued failures of lawmakers to rein in Big Tech. The advertiser-supported mass-surveillance ecosystem that almost no one likes. I guess, are we to blame? Is this our fault? We haven't addressed some of these issues that do exist with the Internet. Is it only natural that someone comes along trying to propose an alternative? [00:17:43][55.9]

Jacob Helberg: [00:17:45] I would simply parse out what issues. There are, you know, a number of very legitimate concerns and issues with Internet governance. I just think that it's important to kind of parse out what issues we're talking about and more slightly more specific ways. A lot of people have concerns about content moderation. That's obviously one bucket of issues. And there's privacy. That's another bucket of issues, data security. And of course, there's antitrust. And so for data privacy and security, I think in the West, we're slowly making progress on that front with respect to developing some sort of regime that is starting to take hold. I mean, obviously, Europe has GDPR. California has its own data privacy law, which basically applies to every large tech company that's based in California, which is a lot of them. And with respect to content moderation, as I write in the book, I think one of the difficulties that's really hard to develop a holistic content moderation regime is that it's very, very difficult. A lot of our laws related to speech, especially in the U.S., but, you know, across the West, generally, they're based on analogies that we use to understand different methods of communication. So for example, you know, a heated debate that people often engage on is, are Internet platforms a public square? Or are they more like a newspaper? And so people really struggle with trying to find what the right analogy is to characterize these platforms because depending on what analogy we use, that is going to be the framing for how we decide how to govern these platforms ultimately. The reason that it's hard to define, to find the right analogy, is because first of all, each of these platforms have a lot of different features to them. They do very many, many different things. I mean, Facebook, if you just take Facebook, Facebook has Messenger, it has the feed. It has, you know, so many different bells and whistles to it that it's really hard to find a single analogy that captures everything perfectly well. The other issue is, platforms change over time. They're not static things. You know, there are what a lot of people in the tech industry call product updates on a regular, you know, quarterly monthly, sometimes monthly, basis where products get updated, they keep up with the times. I mean, the Google search page doesn't, doesn't look the same and doesn't work the same than it did 20 years ago. Because of the shape-shifting nature of a lot of these platforms, it's really hard to find the right analogy for it. And then with respect to antitrust, I mean, obviously, I write in the book that I'm very skeptical about a lot of the antitrust arguments because I think a lot of the arguments, fundamentally, when you really dig in on the evidence, they kind of boil down to a general feeling of discomfort with the overall size of these companies. Because if you look at the hard data in 2019 and 2020, there was over. So you have to look at the supply and the demand side of the market. When you ask yourself, do we have a situation where you have a company that is abusing its market dominance and inflicting consumer harm? You need to look at the supply side of the market and the demand side of the market. On the supply side of the market, is there a lack of competition? Well, in 2019 and 2020, there was over 10,000 VC deals, venture capital deals, that were worth over $139 billion. Just in the United States, that doesn't count Europe, which, by the way, the European tech startup ecosystem is growing quite fast at this point. So is that reflective of a lack of competition? I mean, valuations are at their highest that I've ever seen them, that a lot of my friends that work in the tech industry has ever seen them. And then on the demand side of the market, what is the consumer harm exactly? I mean, is it that people are paying too much for Amazon or Google? You know, a lot of these products are free in the first place. So to me, it's not really clear what the actual evidence-based argument for antitrust is. That's not to say that if there is concrete evidence that there has been an abuse in some way and proof of anti-competitive behavior, I think it's perfectly reasonable to see common sense regulation be put in place. But I still think that even if you see that kind of evidence, it still remains to be proven as to why the right remedy should be breaking up tech companies as opposed to instating a fine or regulating them in some way. I mean, in the U.S. and in Europe for years, we have had fines. Paying fines has been a common remedy for bad behavior. And sometimes the fines are small. Sometimes they're very, very large. But I just don't understand why there is this fixation on wanting to break up these companies. [00:23:07][321.9]

Ayden Férdeline: [00:23:07] I'm not an expert on U.S. antitrust issues, so I don't have an answer or a follow-up question there. I'll leave it to someone else to grill you, Jacob. Now, China has been cracking down on its large tech companies, not for reasons of antitrust, but for consolidation of power reasons I think. The moves to rein in the ride hailing app, DiDi, the disappearance and re-emergence of Jack Ma. China has been cracking down on tech players left, right and center and for Chinese tech entrepreneurs, if you end up in the crosshairs of the CCP, it isn't a pretty picture. Do you think that these crackdowns are going to harm China's ability in the long term to be able to keep innovating? [00:23:52][44.6]

Jacob Helberg: [00:23:53] Yes, I absolutely do. I think this is a classic example where we are seeing the trade-off between China's ability to be a competitive, innovation-driven marketplace where you have founders that embrace free enterprise that start new companies, that pursue ideas. And yes, occasionally that become successful. And China's other objective, which is to keep political power consolidated in the hands of a very few number of people. Very few autocratic governments throughout history have managed to work this out. I mean, most of them have not, which is why a lot of autocracies end up in war and bloodshed in some way. But here you are seeing a leader that was experiencing a situation in his country when the tech industry was booming. You had a lot of these tech CEOs like Jack Ma and, you know, a number of other CEOs that were emerging as these pop culture phenomenon that were very aspirational, you know, extremely wealthy, extremely influential, extremely aspirational culturally for a lot of Chinese people. And I think Xi Jinping saw that as very threatening because he saw that as an alternative power base inside of China and ultimately a very significant level of political risk for him, especially when Jack Ma started making statements that deviated from the party line. [00:25:24][91.5]

Ayden Férdeline: [00:25:26] Right. I wanted to follow up on something you mentioned a few minutes ago about Apple and its supply chains in the context of, what are we going to do about all of this? What are the interventions that the West could execute to win this gray war? I saw the new 007 movie No Time to Die a fortnight ago. I hope I'm not giving away spoilers here, but they somehow create a geopolitical context involving Russia, Japan, Iran, the USA and the U.K. without acknowledging the existence of China. Clearly, Hollywood is fearful of the CCP, so James Bond is stuck in Cold War-era geopolitics. And I think Big Tech is fearful of China too, correct me if I'm wrong. I mention this because in your book, you make clear that government interventions are needed in order to win the battles that lay ahead. But do you really see industry and government aligning and collaboratively dealing with the issues that you've raised? Industry and government align on nothing, usually. And is there even political convergence in the US on addressing the threats that China poses? [00:26:38][72.3]

Jacob Helberg: [00:26:39] Well, I think you're going to need two things happen in order to see greater convergence. So the first, let me preface my answer with expressing encouragement and optimism about the fact that there has been over the last couple of years a lot of movement in the opinion, the consensus within the tech industry and a slow awakening and realization about the fact that the U.S.-China relationship has a lot of structural issues that are not going to go away overnight. And therefore the way that tech companies should think about approaching the U.S., the Chinese market should change. And so I've been very comforted seeing a lot of executives becoming more vocal about human rights abuses against Uighers. Becoming more sophisticated on aspects of the U.S.-China relationship that go beyond the very simplistic views that we had in the past about, you know, oh China's a big market. It's, you know, the land of opportunity. It's an Eldorado. We should totally do business there. I think now you're seeing a more sophisticated, multi-dimensional viewpoint where people start to appreciate the complexities of the bilateral relationship. I do think that it is in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution that it is a fundamental purpose of the U.S. Government to provide for the common defense. And at the end of the day, that is a core responsibility of the U.S. government. And so it's up to national security professionals and policymakers to lay down the ground rules to define the ways in which and the parameters in which it's OK and not OK for American companies to do business or not do business in China. I don't think we can expect the private sector to voluntarily be the arbiters of how our national security with China should operate. The jobs of private companies are to build products people love and to deliver returns for shareholders. And they do that very, very well. Their job is not to think about our 30-year national security strategy. And that is the job of the U.S. government. And that is what we should, as citizens, expect them to do and deliver on. So I think, to answer your question, I'm optimistic that we're seeing more convergence. But at the end of the day, I think this is an area where it is very appropriate for the U.S. government to step in and put in some very commonsense ground rules to encourage companies to accelerate that convergence. [00:29:16][156.6]

Ayden Férdeline: [00:29:17] How long does the U.S. government have to act? [00:29:19][1.7]

Jacob Helberg: [00:29:20] I mean, if you listen to Taiwan's Minister of Defense, we have 24 months before an invasion of Taiwan. It's a little bit hard to define a specific window because it depends on what milestones you're trying to calibrate for. But if the goal is to prevent China from reaching a level of geopolitical escape velocity where they reach a level of power and influence around the world that's too significant for us to be able to roll back. We need to obviously act very quickly, and that's one of the reasons that I like the nomenclature of defining this as a war is because it is urgent. It is about the political survival of our system, and we need to reprioritize our domestic and foreign policies around the single-minded objective of winning this struggle and coming out on the other side and having a positive outcome on the other side. [00:30:19][59.0]

Ayden Férdeline: [00:30:20] Jacob Helberg, thank you for joining us today on POWER PLAYS. And congratulations again on the launch of your new book, The Wires of War. [00:30:27][7.3]

Jacob Helberg: [00:30:28] Thank you so much for having me. [00:30:29][1.0]

Ayden Férdeline: [00:30:29] I'm Ayden Férdeline and this has been POWER PLAYS. We'll be back with season three next year. [00:30:33][4.6]

[00:30:34] This has been POWER PLAYS. POWER PLAYS is a production of Etunu. The guests on this program speak only for themselves, and the views expressed do not necessarily align with those of Etunu. Copyright 2021 Etunu Inc. All rights reserved. [00:30:34][0.0]

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