- - Wednesday, December 9, 2020

We frequently found ourselves on opposing sides of the debate during the decade we spent together in the U.S. Senate. 

Yet, as it relates to an increasingly pressing matter of economic security — whose gravity has only grown since the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak — these two former Senate colleagues have a common perspective: America’s technological edge must be protected.

When we began our respective careers on Capitol Hill, scores of innovations born out of that edge had not yet been invented — and remarkable digital tools we now regard as ordinary had not yet been dreamed of. Today, those same tools are indispensable ingredients in the strength of our economy at large, as well as in the success of America’s small businesses.

Back in 2017 alone, the digital economy — which grew more than three times as fast as the overall economy between 2006 and 2016 — accounted for a staggering 6.9% of U.S. gross domestic product or $1.35 trillion. During that same year, the digital economy also supported 5.1 million jobs, which accounted for roughly 3.3% of the American workforce.

As it works to generate economic growth across America, the preservation of our country’s tech edge is particularly important to us as former representatives of states that rely heavily on a robust small business sector. In Georgia, for instance, “small businesses make up 97 percent of companies doing business” — a figure that only increases in the Flickertail State as nearly 99% of all businesses in North Dakota are considered small businesses.

And because neither Georgia nor North Dakota, of course, is the home of Silicon Valley — and Wall Street is quite a ways away from communities like Warner Robins and West Fargo — our shared perspective in the debate over whether America’s tech edge should be reinforced or relinquished is rather unique in that it is rooted in the interests of rural America.

Small businesses across America have been able to be innovative and creative because they have taken advantage of new technology which has allowed them to grow their markets. The cascade of intercontinental commerce that has been unleashed by digital platforms means that companies in Williston, North Dakota, and customers in Williston, South Africa — as well as businesses in the state of Georgia and buyers in the Republic of Georgia — have never been closer.

Innovators, in other words, have empowered mom-and-pops on Main Street to reach new customers without a Madison Avenue-sized budget. Innovators have paved a path for farmers and family-owned enterprises to penetrate consumer bases previously reserved for Fortune 500 behemoths. And as Nick Clegg — the former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom who currently serves as vice president for global affairs at Facebook — recently wrote in a Washington Post column on the consequences of a lurch toward digital protectionism and a further fragmented Internet, “the consequences go far beyond the economy.”

“From shopping and video conferencing to instant messaging and social media, services that rely on data being shared across borders could be restricted. Personalized advertising, in particular, is not only valuable for small businesses that can’t afford mass marketing campaigns but also the key that opens the door to a world of free tools and services for everybody.”

To quantify just how critical American technology was prior to the pandemic — prior to when the virus “accelerated the shift away from physical stores to digital shopping by roughly five years” — a 2018 U.S. Chamber of Commerce study found that 84% of small businesses utilized at least one major digital platform to provide information to their customers, while nearly 75% benefitted from those same platforms for sales.

Per a subsequent study conducted by Deloitte, 90% of small businesses reported that “digital tools have helped foster innovation in their business.” Accordingly, as small business owners leveraged digital platforms to bring their products to a broad consumer base, innovation became the lifeblood of America’s heartland. Now, as small business owners fight to re-emerge from a harrowing reality in which 97,966 local establishments that temporarily shut down due to COVID-19 are permanently closed, digital tools are ready to serve as a lifeline for rural America.

The results of a recent Ipsos survey reflect the unrivaled role technology has played in powering Main Street economies — along with its peerless capacity to provide a tremendous lift to our country throughout the duration, as well as in the aftermath, of this crisis. Per the poll, the American people rightfully recognize technology companies as vital to the success of the economy, and a full 88% also agree with the sentiment that it is “more important than ever for the government to ensure that America’s most innovative companies remain competitive at home and abroad.”

And although the survey shows 83% of the American people believe our tech companies strengthen the U.S. economy and 82% believe our tech companies create more opportunities for more people, we recognize there remain issues like accessibility that need our attention — and the industry is striving to address them.

As Washington prepares to devote more attention to this discussion in the coming months, we encourage lawmakers to listen to the American people — particularly at a time when so many small business owners face long odds and consensus among the public is in short supply. The powerful economic engine that is America’s technological edge must be defended — not derailed.

• Former U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, and Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, are co-chairs of the American Edge Project’s Economic Advisory Board.

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