Last week I had the pleasure of attending a conference at the Ditchley Foundation centered on the question- “Will we still have one global internet in 2025?” The conference dealt with a myriad of topics ranging from the governance of the internet to the impact the Internet of Things will have on parliamentary politics. Over the next few weeks I will address several of these issues beginning with the term “digital disappointment”.
Why are we so disappointed with digital?
The Ditchley conference brought together academics, policy makers, diplomats, representatives from the Tech industry and telecommunications companies to discuss the future of the internet. The majority of these participants argued that we are witnessing the emergence of digital disappointment, a time in which internet users feel that the digital world is no longer one they happily inhabit.
There are several reasons for this digital disappointment, including:
- A rebuke of globalization– the election of Donald Trump, the rise of right politics and Brexit may all be viewed as a rebuke of globalization. In many countries, there is now a political shift towards localization and a return to tradition and patriarchy, which is opposed to the social revolutions globalization has brought with it. The internet, and internet based services, are viewed as the driving force of globalization. Thus, the rebuke of the globalized world is, to an extent, a rebuke of the digital world.
- A breach of trust– the summer of Edward Snowden was a critical junction in the relationship between internet users and Tech companies. Users of internet platforms, ranging from Facebook to Amazon, became aware of the extent to which their private information is no longer private. Most disconcerting was the willingness of some companies, and some social media platforms, to connect intelligence agencies to their data servers. This was done without notifying users and without seeking their permission. This loss of trust has facilitated digital disappointment.
- A lack of transparency– in addition to the loss of trust between internet users and internet platforms, there is growing resentment with the overall lack of transparency on the side of Tech companies. This includes the fact that few people can make sense of the user agreements they are forced to adhere to when using internet based services. Additionally, users of Facebook, Amazon and Google have no idea how these companies’ algorithms shape their world and the knowledge they rely on. The burning question on the mind of a Facebook user is “why do I see what I see”. Finally, users of such platforms do not know what data is gathered on their activities and who will have access to such data (e.g., advertisers).
- The Internet of Things– the recent cyber-attack on America’s east coast demonstrated that the Internet of Things has arrived. Hackers were able to utilize everyday devices such as toasters in order to launch an attack crippling US internet services. The connected world of “things” has thus entered our homes, schools and kitchens with or without out knowledge. This growing pervasiveness of the digital world, alongside fear of future attacks of sensitive institutions, has turned many cyber optimists into cyber pessimists.
- The new framing of the internet– in 2011, the internet and internet based services were framed as a positive force in society. They were the enablers of the Arab Spring. In 2016, the internet is framed in both media and political discourse as a negative force- it’s the breeding ground of terrorists, a tool for mass surveillance and the launching pad of right wing demagogues. This media framing has also brought about a form of digital disappointment.
How will digital disappointment influence digital diplomacy?
The impact of digital disappointment on diplomacy will be substantial. First, citizens may demand that governments increase regulation of digital service providers, be it Amazon or Facebook. Such regulation is likely to focus on the issue of algorithmic transparency or forcing companies to share with users the manner in which algorithms shape one’s online world and access to knowledge. Additionally, citizens may look to governments to regulate the kind of data, and amount of data, that Tech companies may accumulate and how that data may be shared with third parties (i.e., advertisers).
The reason that this issue may fall under the remit of foreign ministries is that citizen data is borderless online. American Tech companies accumulate information on the citizens of New Zealand, Israel and Greenland and sell such information to third parties in Germany or India. As data is borderless, and as Tech companies operate on a global scale, it may fall on diplomats to re-shape global digital policy.
Secondly, the issue of digital disappointment also relates to digital ethics- what can and can’t Tech companies do? What can and can’t be shared online? What constitutes hate speech and what must be protected as part of our freedom of speech? These issues are also trans-national and may best be answered by collaborations between governments and civil society groups. MFAs and diplomats may soon find the need to reach out to global civils society organizations in order to promote a global discussion on the issue of digital ethics.
Third, the breach of trust between internet users and internet platforms may also influence MFAs’ ability to converse with online populations. Internet users may treat governments with the same suspicion they have towards Facebook or Google given that governments too have an affinity towards gathering and analyzing big data. Such lack of trust may diminish diplomats’ ability to use digital tools as public diplomacy mediums.
Moreover, the demand for government transparency is also likely to increase forcing MFAs to become even more transparent than they are at the moment. As diplomats have no proclivity towards sharing information, the demand for increased transparency may diminish their willingness to employ digital tools.
Finally, as the sentiment of anti-globalization grows, diplomats will be forced to advocate in favor of a global, open and democratic internet and to fend off attempts by nations to fragment the World Wide Web. This is already happening in many nations throughout the world including Iran, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia and more.
Securing an open internet may thus soon occupy multi-lateral, bi-lateral and digital diplomacy.