The Tech Billionaires Who Helped Ban TikTok Want to Write AI Rules for Trump

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
TikTok logo is placed on the U.S. and Chinese flags in this illustration taken, April 25, 2024.

Two years ago, Jacob Helberg, a little-known tech industry adviser, convened a dinner between lawmakers and a small group of Silicon Valley insiders on Washington’s Embassy Row. The informal supper club, which would eventually receive funding from billionaire investor Peter Thiel’s venture firm, was not distinctive for its wealth or clout – the people involved had plenty of both – but for its members’ eagerness to eschew the industry’s long-held ideals of boundaryless technology for an alternative vision rooted in American nationalism and an anti-China might.

Today, that group has turned into one of the most powerful lobbying forces for the technology industry in Washington, helping draft and promote one of the country’s only pieces of tech legislation in decades: a law signed by President Biden calling for the forced sale or ban of TikTok, the video app owned by the Chinese-based company ByteDance and used by some 170 million in the United States.

Fresh off that win, the group’s leader, Helberg, is aiming to expand its mission. With associates, he is prepping an executive order geared for a possible future Trump presidency that would dismantle the Biden administration’s rules on artificial intelligence, according to people familiar with its dealings who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. Instead, they will push government to pour money into AI grants and contracts that could benefit many in the group.

They aim to undercut China’s status as a U.S. trading partner and are designing legislation that would shift the AI supply chain, including costly semiconductor chips, to domestic manufacturers.

Helberg declined to comment on the potential executive order.

Their newfound prominence was on display in Washington on Wednesday during their first public event, the sold-out Hill and Valley Forum, which featured a who’s-who roster of tech luminaries and senators, including Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and John Thune (R-S.D.). They described the interplay of American and Chinese tech in high-stakes, warlike terms, such as assessing “America’s Readiness for an AI Pearl Harbor.” All the panelists but one, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), were men.

The summit marked a victory lap for Helberg in particular. He helped promote the TikTok divest-or-ban bill, offering explosive and largely undocumented warnings that the video app was a “weapon of war” of Communist China. It is also a triumph for the worldview of Thiel, a longtime China hawk who propelled the careers of several speakers and whose firm, Founders Fund, is a sponsor of the forum’s dinner.

But the event also served as a coming-out party for a group whose surging clout and sway on Capitol Hill may shape the debates about the next generation of AI. After Biden signed the TikTok bill into law last month, Helberg boasted his access to the top tier of Congress with a photo collage on X showing him glad-handing with “heroes”: House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) and the bill’s co-sponsor Mike Gallagher, the Republican from Wisconsin who resigned from the House last month to join the defense contractor Palantir, where Helberg now works as a senior adviser to chief executive Alex Karp.

“Lots more work to be done!” Helberg wrote, alongside an emoji of an American flag.

Helberg said in an interview this week that his “strategy of being everywhere” has helped the cohort achieve its policy goals. They are spurred by a new, informal community of techies – a “small cult that has grown into a movement” – who are “unabashedly on Team America,” he said.

“What used to be controversial … in Silicon Valley actually now has moved to the consensus,” he added. “The era of neutrality” is over.

This approach has also fueled criticism that the group’s mission is self-serving, devoted largely toward promoting its technologies as the perfect solutions for an America facing growing global threats.

The consortium pushed to “ban an entire social media platform on the speculation of self-interested tech millionaires,” said Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who studies AI policy.

Now they’re warning of “the potential of AI to pose an existential risk to all of humanity, when what they would really like to see … is the government pump a bunch of money into their products and stay out of their way,” he added.

Helberg says that such criticism is “unhealthy” and that the importance of the technological and geopolitical moment merits an extraordinary response.

“Did companies benefit during World War II, making weapons for the U.S. government? Of course,” he said. “But then didn’t the whole country benefit even more? Absolutely.”

Several of the speakers at the event, including billionaire investor Vinod Khosla and Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, have long argued that tech is uniquely capable of solving societal ailments – and that Washington has historically stymied its progress. Many have avoided public events in Washington, preferring to negotiate behind the scenes, if at all.

But declining venture-capital returns, a costly AI arms race and China’s growing technological sophistication have also sent the industry hunting for government contracts and espousing newly patriotic ideals. Some who were proponents of dismantling the regulatory state are now eagerly feting, and being feted by, the regulators themselves, seeing it as a way to gain influence, compete with foreign rivals and shape national policies.

The coming technological clash

Six years ago, Helberg was a policy adviser at Google, helping the search giant craft its response to Russian and other foreign interference on YouTube and other Google-owned properties.

But Helberg, 34, said that his worldview differed from many of his Google colleagues. They felt that technology could help authoritarian countries become more free; at the time, Google was reportedly exploring breaking into the Chinese market by launching a censored version of its app.

Helberg said he took a more adversarial view, informed by a belief that perennial political warfare, using everyday technologies, has become a “pervasive feature of international politics.” Internally, he created the Good Neighbor Policy, which used software to detect news sites that misrepresented their ownership or country of origin. (He says his colleagues jokingly called it JacobCare.)

He said he was also troubled by a “growing rift” rooted in distrust between Washington and Silicon Valley, whose denizens argue that the bureaucratic culture of Washington runs counter to their “builder” ethos.

In 2021, he wrote “The Wires of War,” a book that laid out an escalating technological clash between Western democracies and authoritarian countries like China and Russia.

The book was picked up by then-Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who displayed it on his wall and circulated it among fellow Republicans in Congress, Helberg said. The following year, Helberg set up the Embassy Row dinner with about 100 influential venture capitalists and lawmakers. The dinner included Helberg’s husband, Keith Rabois, then a top partner at Thiel’s Founders Fund. (Helberg and Rabois, a contemporary of Thiel at Stanford University, were married by OpenAI CEO Sam Altman a few years earlier, bringing the policy wonk into one of the most elite social networks in tech.)

The focus of the original dinner was for legislators to build relationships with a rising but still rare crop of Silicon Valley companies that aimed to sell defense technologies to the federal government. Many of these start-ups, such as Anduril, were incubated and funded by Founders Fund and seen as a second-generation Palantir, the data-mining defense contractor co-founded by Thiel nearly two decades earlier.

The first dinner turned into several, and they ultimately became a quiet back channel between some of the most influential Silicon Valley leaders and like-minded lawmakers such as Gallagher and Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). Thiel attended last year’s forum along with Khosla.

At the time, Helberg was in the thick of his campaign against TikTok. For over a year, he said yes to every speaking engagement and TV spot, invited lawmakers to his home with Rabois in Miami, and was on a plane to Washington three times a week – drilling in the message “every time” that TikTok “should be treated as a tool of the Chinese Communist Party.”

This was a shift from 2020, when an attempted TikTok ban from the Trump administration produced outcry in Silicon Valley – spurring the app’s investors, including the leaders of Sequoia Capital, to head to Washington to try to protect it. Today, Helberg noted, few Silicon Valley leaders are defending a platform that has emerged as a major rival to some of their businesses. Sequoia’s newly anointed leader, Roelof Botha, is speaking at Wednesday’s forum.

“It’s a complete sea change,” Helberg said.

Pivoting from TikTok to AI

The group has quickly shifted from its TikTok crusade to artificial intelligence – an arena that the Biden administration and lawmakers have moved to aggressively regulate.

Biden recently signed a wide-ranging executive order establishing safety reviews for the next generation of AI models. House and Senate leaders have created bipartisan groups to develop proposals that would advance AI innovation, while other bills address potential AI harms, including copyright infringement and election fraud.

Venture capitalists and start-up CEOs have argued against some of these measures, worrying that a heavy-handed approach to regulation could slow the pace of technology and benefit some of the biggest companies at their expense. Some tech investors not involved in the forum, including Marc Andreessen and John Doerr, also attended a private meeting organized by Schumer, where they discussed how to regulate AI without impeding innovation.

As the confab got underway, and attendees from Silicon Valley AI companies mingled with government types, speakers discussed American exceptionalism and celebrated the growing partnership between Silicon Valley and the defense industry.

“Let the competition that is happening now … just absolutely flourish,” said Josh Wolfe, co-founder and managing partner of the venture firm Lux Capital. “This is what made the defense industry in America great. It is the very tenets of free markets and capitalism.”

In one session, Helberg spoke to Khosla and Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) about “the U.S.-China Techno-economic war and the national security implications of AI.”

Khosla, co-founder of the early-internet giant Sun Microsystems, has also embraced the role of a vocal TikTok critic.

He and Helberg co-signed a full-page ad in the New York Times in April calling TikTok a Chinese “weapon of war,” adding they didn’t “stand to gain or lose anything” from the bill and spoke “as private citizens out of love for the United States.”

But Khosla’s venture firm invests in Altman’s OpenAI, the ChatGPT maker that has worked to market American AI firms as an irreplaceable national shield against an adversarial China.

“Doomsday-ing is good marketing,” said Calo, the University of Washington law professor, noting that the “political theater” of anti-TikTok bans and Cold War talk distracts from more pressing needs, like properly funding the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the government lab critical to evaluating AI that has been plagued by leaks and mold.

The event closed with a video message from former president Donald Trump, who thanked attendees for “keeping your chin up.”

“Our country is going through a lot of problems right now, but we’re going to make it bigger, better, stronger than ever before,” he added.