This was not Marc 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. During his time at Columbia Capital, he was knee-deep in the mobile world during his 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 Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico. The program was part of a wider, ongoing initiative to bring lawmakers to CES as technology becomes increasingly important in our lives and the policies that govern it.
Fittingly, Warner has made technology a centerpiece of much of the work he’s done in the upper chamber of Congress, from social media accountability to the protracted technology cold war between the US and China. He also serves as 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 conference room at the Las Vegas Convention Center to discuss some of the top technology 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 that’s all everyone’s been talking about this week, Kevin McCarthy’s propensity to step on rakes on his way to becoming House Speaker. (Note: McCarthy won on the 15th ballot, about six hours after our conversation.)
(Editor’s note: This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.)
What do you think of the McCarthy situation in general?
I don’t know how he got out of here. I know him because I dealt with him as part of the Gang of Eightand honestly, my interactions with him were fine. [ … ] I’m a little surprised that he’s made all these concessions that he said he wouldn’t, and he hasn’t pushed back from the moderates.
At the 10th or 11th vote you start to make more concessions.
I understand that people can be critical of Nancy Pelosi, but you never imagined that scenarios like this would happen to her.
Everyone seems to follow this.
And the fact that it was January 6’s two-year anniversary. The idea of them coming in at 10pm Friday night.
How did you make the leap into politics?
I started with an interest in politics. I graduated from college, I had no money, and as a young guy I had raised money for the Democratic National Committee and Jimmy Carter’s campaign. I remember someone who went into debt $300,000 after losing in a race. I couldn’t imagine that. The idea was that, if ever I’m going to have [a political career] as a possibility, I will first look for a financial basis. I failed miserably at two companies. The third was cell phones, and I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
You have a technical background, but I think there is a lack of technical knowledge in leaders in general and in government in general. Given how much technology touches each piece of legislation, what can we do to keep Congress informed?
I think people are trying. The good news is that most technology issues don’t fall on a liberal-conservative continuum. My tired expression 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 looked up to my eyes in both – that technology competition is national security. If we get into a conflict with China, I don’t believe it will be who has the most aircraft carriers and planes. It will be who dominates the satellites; can you turn off the power?
You may never have to conflict if you have a communication medium controlled by the Chinese Communist Party that has 100 million children active called TikTok. I think people understand that, and there’s a willing bipartisan concern about China and national security. Both make members more willing to learn about technology and realize it’s something we should focus on. But it has been an evolution.
You mentioned Huawei. I thought, perhaps naively, that when Trump left office the list of entities and other issues would be rolled back. These things have remained firmly in place.
Huawei is a threat to national security. Huawei scared me, because I’m a wireless guy. I grew up in a world with Motorola and AT&T and Nortel, Erickson, Nokia, Samsung. You turn around and all the North American companies are gone. You suddenly have not only a Chinese company, but you have the Chinese who set the ground rules for the International Telecommunications Union and all these standard-setting bodies, which we used to dominate, and then they flooded the zone. We are starting to tell other countries that Huawei is challenging. But we had no alternatives.
You are talking about infrastructure.
Yes. Huawei is cheap and it’s a soup-to-nuts solution. But one of the things I find really positive is that even the European companies that have gone down the Huawei path are doing some version of rip and replace. I think awareness that these Chinese companies pose national security risks has grown beyond America.
Isn’t it about time we started a serious discussion about legislation surrounding police and killer robots?
Honestly, I probably haven’t thought about it enough. Using technology without some guardrails – I think we’re making a mistake with the “go out and innovate, break things” idea.
Move fast, break things.
I think that caused some real problems. It’s one of the issues I’ve pitched on that we need to be involved with 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 people out of the decision-making process. That scares the hell out of me. How are you going to legislate those front guardrails? We’re not very good at it. Usually we legislate afterwards, and I’m surprised we still haven’t done anything on social media.
That’s a topic I wanted to address with the recent Twitter news.
I’m a big supporter of Elon Musk, especially with SpaceX.
As a technological innovator.
Yes. My concern about him on Twitter is not about putting Trump back on Twitter; it is because his real source of wealth is Tesla whether he will be so dependent on the Communist Party of China in terms of the source of all 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 has made about infrastructure in Europe or America are generally negative. I’m worried about undoing influence.
So the concern is that he’s using this as a platform to promote these ideas?
I would be concerned that Twitter would suddenly ban negative comments about the Communist Party in China.
There was a fight [prior to Musk purchasing Twitter] about “freedom of speech” and how it applies to a platform run by a private sector company. If it’s a company he owns, that’s his jurisdiction.
I think you can put some restrictions on section 230. I’m not where much of the tech community might be. I support freedom of speech. I think you have no right to necessarily have it amplified eight billion times.
Should the FTC be more aggressive with regard to acquisitions and potential monopolies?
Yes. Some argue that we don’t need additional legislation; they just need a stronger rating. I do think that some of the allowed transactions could have been avoided. I think it would have made sense in the long run. You made the point that technology companies are virtual utilities. I believe – and I am by no means an antitrust expert – that the consumer price is the only thing.
Pure 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 bad for them to use our data and monetize it.
I’ll say that.
I’m more squishy than that. But people should know what it’s worth.
And they should know what data they are providing.
Right, right. I think it’s crazy that we’ve never had a data privacy law in this country.