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Tony Blair: US and Europe need a common position on Chinese tech

Speaking at the Web Summit, the former prime minister urges politicians to get tech regulation right.

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Tony Blair speaking at Web Summit in Lisbon.

Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Chinese tech is experiencing something of a boom, and it would be fair to say the US and Europe are unsure how to react. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has an idea.

"One thing that will be really good is for America and Europe to work out how they actually cooperate in the technological sphere, and how they make sure that in respect to China, and as China rises, they take a common position," he said, speaking at the Web Summit in Lisbon on Wednesday.

China is the source of much of the cutting-edge research and development in technology, in areas from phones to AI to genetics. But given how vastly different its political system is from that of the US and Europe, the regions need to work out how closely they're prepared to work together, said Blair. "Do you decouple from China or do you try and have some form of competitive cooperation or cooperative competition?"

Blair shared the Web Summit stage with Silicon Valley congressman Ro Khanna, who agreed that a common position is the key to both regions excelling in technology. But unlike Blair, he was less focused on cooperation with China and had his eyes fixed firmly on the competition.

"The most important thing for the United States and Europe is to win the technology race," said Khanna. "We can't afford to lose in artificial intelligence, in quantum computing, in biotechnology -- we need to make those fundamental investments and be in the lead and make sure China is more dependent on our technology than vice versa."

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Blair said it's also important that the cooperation between the US and Europe extends to taking a common position on regulation -- and ensuring they invest the time and effort in developing regulation that's fit for the purpose.

"Politicians are very simple people -- what they don't understand, they don't like, and what they don't like, they will regulate, but often badly," he said. "Big tech is developed in a way where these companies have enormous power, enormous reach. It's inevitable there's going to be a desire to regulate them. But you've got to get the regulation right."

Europe is largely considered to be at the forefront of regulating big tech, thanks to the strong position it's taken on antitrust and tax and the implementation of its General Data Protection Regulation as a bid to protect privacy.

"I regret that the United States hasn't been able to participate as much in the conversation because our Congress has not had a privacy framework, we haven't had an antitrust framework," added Khanna. "Frankly, I think there's been too much of a deferral on the regulatory framework to Europe." He said he hopes there will be more of a conversation between the two regions in future.

Blair, who was prime minister of the UK from 1997 to 2007, stressed that preserving the transatlantic alliance he had fostered with the US during his time in office was key to establishing this conversation, and warned against its breakdown.

"Our own relationship is becoming transactional when it shouldn't be," he said, but added that he thinks it's salvageable. "The values that bind America and Europe together are strong and important, and we're both, in the end, whatever the temporary issues around our politics, defenders of liberal democracy."