By creating a new diplomatic position dedicated to the digital world, Denmark is acknowledging the growing importance of the Internet giants in the political sphere and updating its diplomacy for the digital age.

A digital ambassador is exactly what smart cities need right now!

On 26 January the Danish daily broadsheet newspaper Politiken reported that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anders Samuelsen, had created the post of Digital Ambassador, thus strongly confirming Denmark’s desire to incorporate digital issues into the political life of the country. The appointee has not yet been named, but his/her role will essentially be to negotiate with the US web giants, in particular Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple.

The minister explained his decision by arguing that these companies have now in a way become like real states. They exert enormous influence, comparable to genuine countries. Denmark is the first country in the world to create a digital ambassador and is thus ushering in a new era in the relationship between states and multinational corporations, i.e. shifting from a strictly business relationship to include quasi-diplomatic relations.

Silicon Valley involvement in US politics

With its 1.8 billion users, Facebook is often described, tongue-in-cheek, as the largest nation on earth. And one might even say that this is actually not a joke. Anyone who follows US news will realise that Mark Zuckerberg’s company is nowadays a political player in its own right that cannot be ignored. And Facebook is not the only firm in this position.

Recently Silicon Valley took a clear opposing stance against the executive order signed by Donald Trump banning people from seven Muslim countries – Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Yemen and Syria – from entering the United States. Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and Amazon not only openly criticised the order but also announced concrete measures to back up their views, with inter alia Airbnb promising to house refugees free of charge and Google donating $4 million to charities that assist migrants.

The political involvement of these giants of the new economy did not however just begin with recent political developments. In his book Le Mythe de la Singularité, (‘The Singularity Myth’) French computer engineering expert and academic Jean-Gabriel Ganascia explains how these firms have taken on an increasing number of prerogatives which in the past used to be the preserve of sovereign states. He writes that “The modern sovereign state, whose role it used to be to perform a number of functions, now finds itself overtaken by huge high-tech industry players which claim to be able to take on those same functions, do the job better and do it at a lower cost.‟

Ganascia argues for instance that this holds true for internal security. With their immense image databases Google and Facebook can use facial recognition technology much more effectively than national surveillance services. This is a vital factor in combating crime, as it enables suspects to be identified. “Today Google’s facial recognition software has attained a recognition rate of 99.63%,‟ he points out, adding: “To achieve this result, the software has been ‘trained’ on 200 million images. No sovereign state has access to a database of this size, and even if a state agency did have one, it would not be authorised to use it.‟ In fact these firms are becoming the preferred partners allies of states looking to guarantee the safety and security of their citizens. It is worth noting here that since December the United States immigration authorities have required all foreign visitors to list their social network accounts.

The widening role of the major Internet players

Other areas of national sovereignty are also being affected. Ganascia underlines that “in the United States, some courts decide whether to place a suspect under provisional arrest depending on whether s/he is likely to re-offend, and the probability of that is calculated using Big Data.‟ Firms specialising in data processing are thus beginning to play a role in law enforcement. Education is another area involved. The French Ministry of Education has signed a partnership agreement with Microsoft which provides for the IT giant to take on the job of “assisting with teacher training so as to prepare teachers to run special coding classes.‟ Microsoft software will also be used in schools.

Meanwhile in the financial world, Blockchain and Bitcoin are now challenging the exclusive right of nation states to issue legal tender, while in the research sector Calico – founded par Google – is undertaking genome analysis in order to understand the causes of ageing.

Thus security, policing and finance are all sectors where the Internet giants are establishing themselves as major players, with whom sovereign states may choose to cooperate or alternatively conflict, but whom they certainly cannot decide to ignore. Denmark’s announcement seems to reflect a clear understanding of this reality. However, there are two aspects to this. Firstly, political: the Danes are now happy to regard these companies as political players in their own right, on the same level as sovereign states, with whom you need to negotiate diplomatically and try to reach agreements that meet the needs of both parties. This means welcoming the digital players into the arena of international relations as we know them today. The second way of looking at the scenario is to recognise the revolution which the Internet is bringing about. By appointing a digital ambassador, Denmark is acknowledging that digitalisation is expanding worldwide and that this is leading to the dematerialisation of relationships as well.

Turning sovereign states into digital players? 

Today, the traditional sovereign state model, where each country is in charge of its own territory is, if not breaking down, at the very least evolving. We also see that, as a consequence of the boom in digital technology, transnational communities – for instance the Facebook community – are being created, which are freeing themselves from the control of nation states, ignoring frontiers and disregarding all physical territoriality.

Another example is Paypal, which Peter Thiel set up with a view to creating a sort of transnational community in the financial sector.

Denmark is the first country not just to acknowledge the inexorable surge of digitalisation all over the world, but to take practical steps to adapt its diplomatic efforts to this ‘new normal’, recognising that in the digital era it will be vital not only to dialogue with political entities representing a given geographical territory, but to take into account all the players likely to exert significant influence. The digitalisation of relationships may well become more important than the relationships themselves. If this becomes reality, we can expect that in the long term, Denmark will no longer have a Minister for Foreign Affairs and a Digital Ambassador, but a single Minister in charge of Foreign and Digital Affairs.

 

By Guillaume Renouard