Authors: Pavlina Ittelson | Martin Rauchbauer

USA tech diplomacy and the San Francisco Bay Area


Since 2017, the environment of engagement in tech diplomacy in the Bay Area has changed considerably, as the USA has introduced new digital and cyber diplomacy strategies and has implemented administrative structures to pursue them. 

Since 2017, the environment of engagement in tech diplomacy in the Bay Area has changed considerably, as the USA has introduced new digital and cyber diplomacy strategies and has implemented administrative structures to pursue them. 

Changes in US digital diplomacy 

The U.S. State Department has set up the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Diplomacy, with an ambassador-at-large at its helm,1U.S. Department of State. (n.d.). Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy. as well as the Office of the Special Envoy for Critical and Emerging Technology, tasked with strengthening tech diplomacy across the State Department, providing a centre of expertise and energy to develop and coordinate critical and emerging technology foreign policy, and engaging ‘foreign partners on emerging technologies that will transform societies, economies, and security—including biotechnology, advanced computing, artificial intelligence, and quantum information technologies’.2U.S. Department of State. (2023, January 3). Establishing the Office of the Special Envoy for Critical and Emerging Technology.

Additionally, the U.S. State Department also created the post ‘special representative for subnational diplomacy’ in the Office of Global Partnerships with the task to engage with governors, mayors, and other local officials in the USA and globally. The special representative aims to bring the benefits of US foreign policy, such as jobs, investments, innovative solutions, and international experiences to the local and state levels. It supports national security priorities by integrating local ideas into foreign policy, and fostering connections among cities, municipalities, and communities in the USA and abroad.3U.S. Department of State. (2023). The special representative for city and state diplomacy 

In the USA’s recent National Cybersecurity Strategy4The White House. (2023, March 1). National cybersecurity strategy., the focus remains on security and resilience. However, there are aspects that echo the tech diplomacy efforts of the diplomatic representations engaging with US tech companies. First, the US National Cybersecurity Strategy focuses on achieving economic security and prosperity, responsive and rights-respecting democracy, and a vibrant and diverse society. Secondly, the strategy indicates enhanced responsibility of US tech companies, as it calls for ‘rebalancing the responsibility to defend cyberspace and realigning incentives to favour long-term investments’. The most influential actors in the US digital ecosystem (private or public) ‘should assume a greater share of the burden for mitigating cyber risk. When entities across the public and private sectors face trade-offs between temporary fixes and long-term solutions, they must have the resources, capabilities, and incentives to choose the latter.’

There were many other changes on the US side, from addressing supply chain issues to reshaping conversations on cybersecurity and the environment, to exchanges within the US–EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC), to name just a few. It is clear that the US digital diplomacy engagement and environment are advancing and creating additional pathways of engagement in the practice of tech, cyber, and digital diplomacy. 

Another aspect of note is a development in academia is the establishment of Purdue University’s Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy and its Global Tech Security Commission.5Atlantic Council. (n.d.). The Global Tech Security Commission. The objective of the Krach Institute is to support policymakers in gaining an understanding of critical emerging technologies (5G/6G, AI, energy and climate, hypersonics, rare earth elements, semiconductors, quantum computing, synthetic biology) in order to make informed laws and policy decisions.

In 2020, UN member states recognised the importance of technology as a fundamental global issue and pledged to improve digital cooperation to be able to maximise the benefits digital technologies can bring, while curtailing risks. Member states agreed that the UN can provide a platform for all stakeholders to participate in such deliberations.6United Nations General Assembly. (2020). Declaration on the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations (A/RES/75/1).

The UN Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology works on issues of universal connectivity, digital public goods, digital inclusion, capacity building, human rights, AI, digital trust and security, and digital cooperation.

San Francisco Bay Area ecosystem

The Bay Area remains an important destination for global technology investment and the leading global centre for business, technology, and innovation. It remains high in the interest of regional, national, and supranational governments. The organisation Mind the Bridge has recorded 63 active government institutions with a presence in the Bay Area, most of them from European countries.7Mind the Bridge. (2023). European innovation economy in Silicon Valley: 2023 report EU member states are well established here, with 24 out of 27 EU member states having a consulate general or honorary consulate. The Bay Area has the benefit of longstanding tech diplomacy exchanges, the presence of companies with a global impact and others with a history of innovation and science power, and an ecosystem of mutual cooperation between governments and other stakeholders. 

In this report, the Bay Area includes the counties of Alameda, Contra Nosta, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Sonoma, and Solano. 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has dampened exchanges between governments and companies8Bay Area Council Economic Institute. (2022). Innovation platform: The future of global technology and innovation collaboration in the San Francisco/Silicon Valley Bay Area., cutting networking opportunities short. As a result, offices have often limited their operations in the Bay Area, or even closed. Many of the conversations between governments and tech companies have moved online, substituting local physical presence, and moving the gravity of the engagement away from local interactions. Additional challenges to the Bay Area ecosystem, as discovered in our interviews, are a lack of local tech and innovation talent, decreasing innovation potential, insufficient broader discussions on internet policy and governance, and the recent ‘end of the big tech boom’. According to Wall Street results, 2022 was the worst year that the tech industry experienced since the financial crisis of 2008, with Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Meta losing a combined US$3.9 trillion in market value.9Mickle, T., Weise, K., & Grant, N. (2023, February 2). Tech’s biggest companies discover austerity, to the relief of investors. The New York Times.

The Bay Area is now at a turning point – it will either remain strong in its position globally, or will diminish, changing tech diplomacy models in the future.

San-Francisco-Bay-Area-based companies and organisations

Too often the conversations on tech diplomacy in the Bay Area are framed as an exchange between big tech and countries of the Global North. Such a view does not capture the larger picture. 

‘Big tech’ is a dynamic term for technology companies that have gained a large social impact and market-dominant position through the proliferation of their platforms and services. These companies base their business models on collecting huge amounts of data for later use and dissemination. Companies such as Facebook and Amazon are good examples.10Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2021). Towards a better social contract with big tech [White paper]. 

Big tech companies in the Bay Area (Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Meta (Facebook)) have developed corporate structures to engage with governments – on the national (US) level, as well as with embassies, capitals, and local diplomatic representations. These companies are engaging in the tech diplomacy agenda and digital governance, and are starting to have more realistic conversations on the societal norms underpinning the policy discussion. Big tech also has the possibility to adapt quickly to emerging conversations, putting expertise and structures in place. Our interviews showed that people in leading positions in big tech companies had an understanding of the reasons why they should engage in tech diplomacy, as well as the existing gaps that need to be bridged between companies and diplomats.

In addition to big tech, there is an array of companies that have a major impact on the world. Examples include Twitter, Nvidia, Intel, HP, Salesforce, OpenAI, and Zoom. Tech diplomats need not only engage with top revenue companies, but with influential up-and-coming companies. 

The Bay Area has a rich venture capital (VC) scene that is often not engaged at the same level as companies providing social media platforms and software. Our interviews showed that the VC firms see tech diplomats as conduits between the tech community and traditional diplomats, enabling them to access national pools of talent, innovation ecosystems, and conduits to spur cross-border innovation. However, VC firms and small and middle enterprises struggle with achieving the policy expertise required to engage in wider policy conversations.

Despite robust existing conversations between tech companies and diplomats, tech companies repeatedly mentioned in our interviews several challenges they face in engaging with diplomats, including: 

  • A lack of understanding of the impact of emerging tech on early-stage policymaking by diplomats
  • Having difficulty understanding government structures and finding the right government representative with competency to address a specific issue
  • Diplomats’ lack of understanding of how policy impacts tech development, its investments, and competitiveness. An example was given on the rapid expansion to the privacy tech sector in the USA after the adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
  • In some cases, local tech diplomats have little say in policy discussions in their capitals and do not have channels to key government officials to impact policy change.
  • In some cases, local tech diplomats are seen as ‘influencers’ to put forward government policy goals instead of engaging in conversations to achieve informed policymaking.
  • The definition of the tech diplomacy agenda is unclear for some companies, especially in relation to trade and investment as part of the traditional diplomatic agenda.
  • Some companies view governments as a customer for their product first, and are hesitant to engage in a wider policy conversation.
  • There is a cultural gap between tech companies, VC firms, and governments, even if they are all from the same country. Additional cultural gaps need to be bridged in the case of foreign representations.

As such, exchanges between tech companies and tech diplomats would benefit from sharing best practices, outreach to inform and educate on the importance of having governmental affairs departments and regulatory strategies within tech companies, as well as ongoing dialogue.

Since 2017, there has been a shift in how companies approach tech diplomacy, especially since the 2022 geopolitical turmoils. According to our interviewees, large social media platforms are more aware of the impacts of their engagement on democratic values and are now proactively engaging in fighting the spread of disinformation online and actively participating in cybersecurity conversations with governments.

Note: Microsoft is actively engaged in policy and diplomacy discussions on the global level, with a specialised digital diplomacy department. The digital diplomacy department of Microsoft is present in Vienna, Ljubljana, Seattle, Singapore, Prague and Washington, DC. In addition, Microsoft focuses on UN and international institutions in New York, Paris, and Geneva. It was the most quoted name of a tech company engaged in diplomacy when interviewing diplomats outside the Bay Area. Microsoft, with its headquarters in Redmond, Washington, engages in tech diplomacy outside of the scope of this report.

For diplomats, the main challenge is to initiate conversations on current tech diplomacy topics such as AI, quantum computing, fintech, and environmental tech with relevant counterparts at a company. Company structures are hard to read and can change without advance notice. According to our interviewees, tech diplomats occasionally engage US government contacts, embassies, or capitals to reach the right person within the tech company in the Bay Area. This has resulted in companies having very active engagements not only with tech diplomats locally, but also with the embassies in Washington, D.C. and national capitals. 

Drawing depicting several people in front of computer screens talking to each other.