Behind the scenes of the newest hot job in diplomacy: Tech ambassador

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Event transcript

Speakers
Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen,
Tech Ambassador, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Denmark

Joe White
Her Majesty’s Consul-General, San Francisco, and Technology Envoy to the United States, Government of the United Kingdom

Usama Khilji
Executive Director, Bolo Bhi

Moderator
Rachel Gillum
Head of Global Policy, Office of Ethical & Humane Use of Technology, Salesforce

RACHEL GILLUM: Hello and thank you, everyone, for joining. My name’s Rachel Gillum. I lead global policy in the Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology at Salesforce, and I am incredibly excited to welcome you to 360/StratCom, the DFRLab’s annual government-to-government forum.

This year is a special convening [that] takes place on the margins of the Summit for Democracy. Panels like ours will lay the foundation for conversations on tech and its impact on democratic trends, and other urgent issues centered at the summit. These StratCom discussions will frame opportunities for progress during this upcoming Year of Action that the Biden administration will announce and through related action networks launched last month at the Danish Technology for Democracy Summit.

As we all know, support for democracy is a conceptual centerpiece of US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy strategy, and the summit is designed to galvanize a race to the top among countries to promote human rights, address corruption, and counter authoritarianism, with technology’s role in society a common issue throughout. And I would like to thank you all for joining this important conversation…

I’m incredibly excited to introduce this esteemed panel and jump into our conversation. So first, I want to start by introducing Usama Khilji, who is the executive director of Bolo Bhi, a civil-society organization geared towards advocacy, policy, and research in areas of digital rights and civic responsibility. We have Ambassador Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen representing Denmark. She is the tech ambassador within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And we have [ Consul-General] Joe White who’s representing the United Kingdom and he is a technology envoy to the United States.

So a sincere thank you to each one of you for joining us today. So good to have you. And since we only have so much time I want to jump right into the conversation.

And actually, Ambassador Larsen, I’ll go ahead and start with you. First, just to set the stage for our audience: Tech ambassadorships are relatively new positions; they come in different forms with different mandates, and Denmark appointed its first tech ambassador in 2017, which may have been the first country to do so, I believe. And now you sit in this role. So just to set us off: How would you define your role as a tech ambassador for Denmark, and what global challenges prompted Denmark to establish this role?

ANNE MARIE ENGTOFT LARSEN: Thank you so much, Rachel. And thank you to the Atlantic Council and the DFRLab for the invitation to join you here today.

The short answer is that for a small country like Denmark, whether it is our future market opportunities, whether it’s our society, how we live, how we work, how we communicate, we are increasingly, incredibly influenced and, to many degrees, steered by how [technologization] is transforming our society. And for more than two centuries, we’ve been building diplomatic [relationships] with countries, later on with international organizations, where transformation was taking place and where Denmark had a lot at stake. And that’s why back in 2017 we said, now it’s not only other nation-states or international organizations that are having a huge influence on the way we live, on our institutions, down to the very core of our values, and our ethics; [it] is increasingly… nonstate actors, large tech companies, who willingly or unwillingly are becoming part of our geopolitical landscape and context, who are part of our foreign and security/political landscape, and who are very much part of Danish society and [the] Danish way of life.

And so it seemed only natural that we actually [created] a way to engage with them because we are experiencing increased public pressure on how to engage around some of these very challenging topics. We see the need for governments to step in and I think help take a lead on saying: What should be the fundamental framework for how we develop technologies? How should we incentivize a type of technology development that is supporting our values? And to do that, we believe that diplomatic relationships, engaging in dialogue, insisting that there is a relationship to be had with tech companies, finding ways of presenting and representing Danish values and interests, and, at the same time, understanding more what’s going on in the tech sector is incredibly important.

So that’s, in short, the reason why we have a tech diplomacy. I am normally based in Silicon Valley. Today I’m in Copenhagen. But it is with a global mandate, so I think it’s important to say it’s obviously focusing on a lot of the large West-Coast-based tech companies, but it is also with European tech companies, [and] with global tech companies, and [it’s] realizing that so much of all this taking place is happening all around us in many different forums. And it is our role and I think it is our responsibility as governments to understand that change today is taking place in new forms and shapes. It requires a different language. It requires a bit of a different diplomat at times. It requires engaging with the tech sector, also, in more equal terms than we’ve probably done in the past.

RACHEL GILLUM: Thank you. Really helpful.

And Consul-General White, very interestingly, you came into your role as the United Kingdom’s first tech envoy to the United States with a background in entrepreneurship and investment. And so, what can you tell us about how your background has influenced how you’re approaching this role and how you’ve been received by the tech sector? And from your perspective, what are some of the biggest challenges or opportunities for engaging the tech sector?

JOE WHITE: Thanks, Rachel. I think that’s right, and I completely agree with everything that Anne Marie’s just said in terms of the need for this level of engagement between all nation-states and the big tech companies.

I think from my perspective, coming in with twenty years in the tech sector—as you say, first as an entrepreneur and then as a venture capital investor—I think part of the challenge in these conversations is the translation layer between what’s happening on the tech company side and what’s happening on the government policy side. And tech, over the last couple of decades, has really accelerated from being something which was increasingly important in public life to being something now that fundamentally underpins the way that our economies work, our democracies work, [and] our infrastructures [work], and I think the tech companies have a little bit been surprised by their global geopolitical importance in this piece, and many of the challenges that we deal with with them are externalities on their platforms. And so there’s a piece of—for a long time I think the tech companies were broadly saying, you know, these aren’t as big an issue as you perhaps think they are, and so on. I think the pressure and the evidence of these things have been growing over the last years and particularly the acceleration in the pandemic, as we’ve seen in the rise of misinformation in all these areas, which are one degree of these challenging pieces.

So I think a large part of what my background allows me to do is to act as a translation layer between the tech businesses and the policymakers because I think the real risk is that they’re just not hearing each other in some of these debates. I think the tech companies are moving into a place where they now know that they have to engage fully for these things to be solved. They don’t want to be making a lot of decisions without political authority—as in, nation-states have to get involved and say these are the rules and boundaries that we want you to uphold and set. And so as we try and figure those things out together, that’s quite an evolving path, and so understanding how they think the commercial imperative within the business, which I think can be a bit characterized sometimes as being purely profit-seeking, is more about how they think about their places in the market, and this is helpful to understand on the policymaking side, too, so that we can adjust our conversation accordingly.

RACHEL GILLUM: Thank you. And can either of you share how these roles sort of play into your countries’ broader foreign policy agenda larger strategies and how you work with your more traditional diplomats?

ANNE MARIE ENGTOFT LARSEN: Happy to jump in. I think from the Danish experience, at least, when this started, you know, four years ago, I think it was sort of seen as a niche thing. It was a niche office. You know, what do we really do? And what we’re seeing now is that now the question of technology comes in almost every single aspect of what we do in foreign policy, regardless of what region—if it’s security policy, if it’s development aid, if it’s the work that we’re doing in multilateral organizations. So the need for, as Joe was saying before, understanding the tech sector, getting the perspectives, and building, I think, also confidence within this larger diplomatic corps of saying, how do we engage on these topics? How do we meaningfully ask the right questions? How do we make the right positions? Because this is also, I think, a recognition that we as governments for the past two decades sort of left this on its own.

We’ve been engaging in all sorts of other aspects of industries, on regulation and securing sort of an alignment between the social and societal responsibility that we’re expecting from very large industries. Now we need to do this too, and it’s not only in our domestic markets but very much in foreign-instituted political aspects. So now we sort of see it playing into the Danish ministry, there’s a much larger uptake. There’s much greater interest. And technology is no longer a niche or fringe issue; it’s really at the core of so many of the debates we’re having, on geopolitical rivalry, on the question of future of markets, and on the questions also on development and, not least, as Joe mentioned, also questions of democracy.

JOE WHITE: And I think that’s right. I’d agree with that. I mean, I think these roles are in some ways the spearhead of changes that need to happen across diplomatic services all over the world. I mean, as Anne Marie says, tech is now an ingrained part of all relationships. And they are different relationships that you might have with the United States on a tech basis than you might have with countries in Africa or the East. So there are different ways that this needs to be evolved and developed. And it’s a two-way piece. Clearly projecting the UK’s tech policies into other parts of the world is something that’s very important that we do, and for me, at least grateful I only have to cover the United States, I’m sure Anne Marie must be exhausted covering the entire world. But funneling some of that information back into parts of the UK system, the United Kingdom has just stood up, for example, the Office for Science and Tech Strategy as part of our Cabinet office, and this is now a new piece of government machinery which is there really to make sure that the impact of tech is coordinated centrally within government and therefore can be currently managed by all the different departments. So it’s a two-way piece, and I think overall the whole diplomatic service, as well as all governments, need to “up-skill” themselves and to figure out the impacts of tech within their sectors.

RACHEL GILLUM: Thank you. Really helpful.

And Mr. Khilji, I wanted to turn to you. One of the three main pillars of President Biden’s Summit for Democracy is advancing respect for human rights, and unfortunately, unsurprisingly, there are power dynamics at times between government and private sector stakeholders that can shape technology towards or away from human-rights-aligned agenda, say, for national-security or economic interests. And so in this policy ecosystem, as we see these different diplomatic ties and dialogues emerging, why is it important that civil society is represented in these government-to-big-tech conversations, and how do you as a civil society leader engage in these international efforts to shape the trajectory of technology and tech policy?

USAMA KHILJI: Thank you very much for that excellent and rather complex question. I’m very happy to be here, and thank you for, you know, considering [including] the civil society in this conversation, which is critical.

And you know, I’ve written an op-ed a couple [of] years back and it was called the “Alarming Nexus,” and I was really speaking about the nexus between governments and technology companies, and my main apprehension, which remains till date, is that, where does that leave citizens? And where does that leave the rights of citizens? And that’s exactly what your question points to. [There are] multiple layers to this. So yes, you have this power dynamic between, say, governments and between technology companies where, in some instances, we’re seeing that technology companies are able to even, you know, suspend the account of the president of the United States, but on the other hand, you’re also seeing that governments are bringing in a lot of tough regulations regulating social-media companies and technology companies in many ways. But another layer that is not spoken of often is that of the developed world and the developing world—of languages that are majority or are linked to hegemonic powers, such as the English language, versus languages that are spoken, say, in Ethiopia or in Pakistan or in Afghanistan. And where do users of the Internet of those languages lie?

I’ve recently written a piece for the Slate magazine on content moderation by Facebook, and in that, I really addressed this question of US tech companies, which really are the biggest tech companies in the world, following US government policies for a lot of their company policies. So, for example, for content moderation, tech companies often by law are bound by US policies and, for example, what organizations are deemed to be foreign terrorist organizations, and so on and so forth. But what happens when an organization deemed a terrorist organization gets a seat at the table and becomes part of a government, like we saw with the Taliban in Afghanistan? So do the tech companies also change their policy about moderation of that content related to the Taliban? And what that really raises is the question that, is it really prudent or is it really human rights-friendly for technology companies with operations in almost all countries of the world to follow one government’s policies?

So I think when you grapple with these questions, it really makes one wonder that yes, it is super important to have offices of tech ambassadors for countries, and I think I’m very happy to hear what the governments of Denmark and the United Kingdom are doing with their offices and having special representatives for technology. And I would really wish that at forums such as the Internet Governance Forum that’s currently taking place in Poland, which, unfortunately, due to COVID-19, a lot of us are unable to be at, really brings in this idea of representatives from our governments. So, you know, the tech ambassadors sort of have another platform that’s multilateral, that’s global, such as the United Nations, where you have representatives from smaller countries coming in also and bringing in the issues that really matter to them, but then, at the same time, having sort of a Human Rights Council model where you also hear from the civil society. Right? And I think that’s where the civil-society angle is super, super important because a lot of marginalized voices are left out by governments and by technology companies that often civil-society organizations represent. And I feel that’s where multi-stakeholder models also really work. So, for example, I can think of the Global Network Initiative that brings in investors, that brings in technology companies, that brings in civil society and academia, and holds dialogues with governments as well. So I’m excited to see how that pans out and hopefully be able to do more work with tech ambassadors such as those present on the panel with us today.

RACHEL GILLUM: Thank you. You brought up so many important points, and I have so many follow-up questions. I think we know that there is a natural tension between a nation’s domestic-policy interests and these types of international collaborations, and tech policy is no exception. And it’s not just a problem for the United States. I think we could see that in the broader globe. And so how can democratic nations overcome some of these tensions to engage collectively on these issues?

JOE WHITE: Yeah, perhaps I’ll jump in there. I think you’re right. We’ve had this internet grown out of the US and Western liberal democracy, to a certain extent. And what’s interesting now is that different nation-states of course have every right to determine how they want to govern their citizens. And this is about democratically elected authority. And the tech companies clearly would like a series of simplified rules that make it easy for them to run these platforms globally. And that may not be quite the case that they end up with. And I think particularly in the West, there are many areas that we hugely agree on, though [there are] some other subtleties in this.

Like for example in the United Kingdom and the United States, when we get down to our beliefs of exactly what freedom of speech means. The United Kingdom is, of course, a big supporter of freedom of speech, doesn’t have quite the same enshrined characteristics as within the Constitution, but we’d really not consider ourselves to any fundamental issues on this. But when it comes to defining these within a tech landscape, it gets a bit more complicated. So even [in] the areas that we have great agreement between nation-states, the devil in that detail can be quite tricky. And then for the tech companies to figure out how to encode that and operationalize those things.

And someone made the point about actually the different languages on the internet. This is a challenge. I mean, the big tech companies in the United States are obviously focused on how these things are done within English, usually in priority to other things. And this is not OK. Or, rather, it’s understandable but it doesn’t help when you have different levels of content moderation happening across different languages on the internet, which may mean you actually have a slightly degraded service of democratic value protection within other parts of the world.

To link back to your other point about how it ties into traditional diplomacy, the United Kingdom is there not just to represent its own interests, but the UK Foreign Office is there to try and actually support the broader interests of the global economy, and therefore actually without accommodations with tech companies. We’re lucky that we’re a large domestic economy. We’re often the second place where technologies expand to outside the United States as they enter Europe. That conversation we can have to make sure that we bring in other people’s interests, it’s important to do that.

RACHEL GILLUM: So, building on that, what would global collaboration on some of these rules for tech between democracies ideally look like? And how do we get there? I think we sort of talk about coming together, aligning on rules to protect human rights, but what functionally does that really look like at the global scale? Is it within our current institutions? Is it new institutions? What does that look like?

ANNE MARIE ENGTOFT LARSEN: To Joe’s point, I think there’s really a need for sort of a layered approach, recognizing there’s a lot that needs to happen at a local level, domestically… Even though we agree on freedom of expression and freedom of speech, it looks very different even within sort of mature democracies. That being said, I think we’re also finding ourselves at a bit of sort of a crossroad right now where all the ideals and values that so many people fought for in the twentieth century, gave up their [lives] for, they are at stake right now.

We’re seeing a decline in democracies globally. We’re seeing a vulnerability to our democratic institutions that people like me have been taking for granted. Growing up it was the “end of history,” it was the expectation that we would see more and more democracies and people would sort of corral around these values. And we’re seeing the opposite happening. We’re seeing a rise of autocracies and we’re seeing the use of technology really being used, rather as a tool, it’s increasingly becoming a weapon against some of these ideals.

So I think it is a time, and very much prompted by the Biden Summit [for] Democracy, saying: Now is the time for us to relive and, I think, reignite some of that spirit and some of that fighting that was happening in the twentieth century. And say: We need to make sure that as we are going into the digital age, and we’re probably already there, it is one that is supporting democracy, that is developing democracy, that is maturing democracy rather than doing the opposite. And so on the global policy level, I believe that democracies need to come together, and we’re seeing, I think, the European Union, that’s twenty-seven member states, are doing a lot to sort of advance some of this, the transatlantic collaboration around a lot of this.

And I think sort of seeing a broader group of that, so we see between obviously the United Kingdom, United States, European Union (EU), Australia, South Korea, Japan, many countries also across the African continent and Latin America starting to sort of say: How do we make sure that we do this in the right way? And I’m very delighted that there’s going to be 107 countries represented at the Biden summit Thursday and Friday this week. I believe that’s a very, very important start. And some of the international organizations where we look a bit more at specific aspects, whether it’s the [International Telecommunication Union] or the [Internet Governance Forum], these places where we can also discuss policy because we don’t currently have one body where we can set the global regulation and then afterward it sort of trickles down.

So it will have to be a bit of a patchwork between agreeing on some fundamental standards, agreeing on some fundamental principles, and I think holding each other as countries accountable. And that’s where civil society plays such an important role in being part of that conversation, being present at the table and, you know, holding democracies accountable, that it’s more than just great words in a speech, that it becomes something that we live by. And at the same time, getting tech companies to, I think, see their place in that.

When we look at a lot of the tech companies that are fundamental to our everyday life, that are practically in my hand from when I wake up until I go to bed, these technology companies, they were developed and matured in democracies where there was a belief in science, where there [were] free and open markets, where they could get access to the best people and talent, and they could develop these with a respect for democracy and in a democracy. So I think that’s why we need to talk about… you know, what side of history are you going to be on?

And so this alliance also between civil society and mature democracies, tech companies, I think there is more that unites us than divides us. And it’s going to take a little bit of time, I think, to get that realization on what do we have to do differently? What might be some of the tradeoffs in advancing that?

USAMA KHILJI: … Absolutely I agree that the challenge to democracy that the proliferation of technology has posed was rather unexpected, I think, across the world, and highly concerning. And [there are] a few other points that I’d just like to add. It’s also very important to look at emerging democracies and democracies where, you know, there’s been a history of autocracy, there’s been a history of dictatorships… And I think that’s really where one has to be careful.

And technology companies can play a major role because technology can often be used to ramp up a lot of authoritarian ideals that can proliferate through society. And they can also get out of hand if technology companies do not enforce their community standards with equity across the board, especially considering local languages. And these are some examples we’ve seen in countries such as Myanmar or in Ethiopia [or even in India], where you’ve seen a lot of, you know, issues emerging out of the use of technology, out of the use of bad enforcement.

The other piece that I think is necessary to mention over here is how, whereas technology and a lot of research has emerged in mature democracies and in the Western world, what we’ve also seen is [the] export of a lot of technologies that are not democracy-friendly, such as surveillance technology, right? So if you look at some of the biggest companies that export surveillance technology across the world to autocracies, as well as to democracies, including emerging democracies or mature democracies. But these companies are exporting surveillance technology that autocrats and despots are using across the world to carry out surveillance, to crack down on human-rights activists, and to filter and censor a lot of the work that, you know, that activists seek to do, and the governments are able to crack down on that.

So my organization, Bolo Bhi, I think for the past decade what we’ve been doing is writing to a lot of countries, especially mature democracies, and asking them to abide by the United Nations guiding principles on business and human rights, which say that, you know, export of antidemocratic technology or technology that violates human rights should be discouraged. But what we’re seeing is that a lot of those companies continue to sell these technologies. So, for example, in Pakistan you have FinFisher, you know, that’s developed by Gamma technologies, based in the United Kingdom, or you have Sandvine technologies that’s based in Canada exporting their deep packet inspection technology that [is] used for surveillance by the government.

And the government is on record saying that, you know, we’re using these technologies to filter social media, to crack down on human-rights movements that are anti-state. The Citizen Lab in Toronto has done a lot of research that shows the impact that such imports of technologies do on human rights across the world. So I think there’s also a grave need for civil society and for governments and for technology companies to put their heads together on issues like this, and an absence of global regulation around surveillance technology, come up with some sort of moratoriums, where there are checks on companies, and there are checks on where these companies are exporting their technologies to.

Is there sufficient human rights due diligence taking place? And if it is taking place, then what are the controls that are present? Are there licenses that these companies are providing to countries that can be revoked in case that technology is used to violate human rights? I think these are some other pressing questions that we need to be thinking about when we think of tech diplomacy around the world.

RACHEL GILLUM: Yes. It’s so important. It’s so interesting just to see these different actors emerge on the international stage, again, sort of the private sector being an actor in and of itself within different countries, different diplomats engaging there, with civil society. And so as we think about our global institutions and how we typically engage in the post-World War II era, should our institutions be changing, if at all, to account for this changing power dynamic and different roles? Do we need more official direct engagement with tech or civil society? And… how do we make sure that we capture the perspective of democracies outside of the United States, Europe, Australia?

ANNE MARIE ENGTOFT LARSEN: The short answer is, yes. I think our institutions in the twenty-first century simply can’t do how they were set up, you know, seventy to eighty years ago. [There have] been lots of discussions on should the big tech companies… should they have, you know, a seat on the UN Security Council? Should they somehow be represented in those multilateral [fora]? I think from our perspective, one, it’s important to say they do not hold the same legitimacy as states. We are elected. We are representing a government. There are checks and balances. And it is our role and our responsibility to set the rules of the road fundamentally.

That being said, understanding technology, engaging with companies, insisting on the dialogue, insisting on bringing them to the table, finding… proper accountability mechanisms—not with the individuals of the companies, but with the companies themselves. Those large entities that, I mean, I think we got to frank, that these tech companies, they don’t look like anything we’ve seen in the past—the number of users, where they’re active, the type of services.

So we need to figure out how do we engage with them, regulate them in the right way, recognizing the huge amount of added value that they bring to individuals, to societies, to small and medium businesses, to our online conversation, to all of the wonderful things where I don’t think any of us wanted to go, you know, through the past two years in a pandemic without those platforms. And at the same time, addressing the really challenging shadow sides of it.

So they do not hold the same legitimacy as states. I think we should not give them the same role. But we should give them a specific and special role that is addressing that very special impact and influence that they do have on society.

JOE WHITE: Sorry, I’d agree with that. And you’re starting to see, to the question of existing institutions versus new ones, the development of some of these new areas. For example, in the United Kingdom last week we had the Future Technology Forum, which is an extension of the G7 digital track. And that was a conference that took place over two days, the first of which included representatives from big tech, not just US but, you know, technologies which are strategically important within semiconductors and infrastructure and so on around the world. The second day was therefore entirely government only.

And I think, to Anne Marie’s point, the issue of legitimacy is at the core of this. Citizens elect their governments to represent them. And the tech companies, they are representing their shareholders. And of course, they have interests in society, continuing to function, because that would be a problem for all of us, but it is the elected governments [that] have that legitimacy and authority. And so I think that we shouldn’t probably have a ton of new institutions that get created.

For me, this is a little bit like the period of chief digital officers being created within big companies. As in, this was a way of bootstrapping the fifty- or sixty-year-old chief executive that wasn’t tech native, and they brought in that forty-year-old chief digital officer to, you know, help move that across. But what you’ll find is that role has started to disappear, and that’s really because the leaders of big companies now need to be tech literate and tech native in order to lead these businesses. And I think we’ll see the same across both governments and across, therefore, some of these institutions.

Tech needs to be a thread [that] runs through all of these things, which we can discuss sensibly. And the role of the big tech companies, whether it’s the US big [tech] companies or whether it’s even those strategically important industries like semiconductors and telecoms and these other areas. They need a seat not at the table, at a table nearby, such that we can engage with them in structured dialogues, but recognizing that they don’t have that elected legitimacy, which is so important to maintain the support that we have.

RACHEL GILLUM: Thank you. And just a slight pivot, you know, thinking about larger geopolitical issues. As we know, technology’s really at the forefront of where some of these geopolitical tensions play out. And from a US perspective, you know, especially is you’re spending time in Washington you’ll hear a lot about the United States and China, for example, being engaged in what some have termed as a “tech Cold War,” and the prospect of different distinct technological camps emerging. And I think that’s relevant to our conversations about having democracies come together to align about how technology should develop.

But as we think about these different potential tech camps—one among democracies, one among autocracies—how should the democratic world engage autocracies like China in these types of developments, if at all? What’s the right strategy there?

USAMA KHILJI: You know, it’s interesting. I come from Pakistan, and in Pakistan, we have good relations with China, and we’ve also traditionally been a US ally. But what’s interesting is that Pakistan blocked YouTube for a few years and Pakistan’s also blocked TikTok four times in the past year. So when it comes to censorship, there’s no really geopolitical alliance for some countries such as ours, where, you know, we have seen censorship of companies coming from both countries. And this is really a question that’s often asked.

And I think, you know, going back to your question, I would say we should be careful of securitization of the internet because that sort of securitization, at the end of the day, impacts the rights of citizens the most. So, for example, if you’re trying to say, oh, OK, this company is based in China and shouldn’t be getting access to citizens’ or users’ data, I agree a hundred percent. But then, at the same time we should be wary of, OK, how much access does the US government have to data of citizens, especially on, you know, US companies or otherwise? And with the NSA leaks by Edward Snowden, we know that the US was also spying on millions of citizens at home and abroad. So I think when we get into the securitization debate, we should also be wary of, OK, so what are the excesses that all countries across the world, be them democratic or autocratic, are committing, and how they’re violating rights to privacy of citizens, which we know has a chilling effect on the freedom of expression as well. And I think that’s one piece that, you know, I would like to reiterate.

And secondly, I think it’s also very important that in trying to condemn China we don’t end up emulating them. And that’s being seen in, you know, a lot of countries, where we’re starting to build borders around the internet in each country. And I think that’s very, very harmful.

So you have China’s Great Firewall. But what a lot of social-media and internet regulations across the world in different countries are doing are also building borders around the internet in their countries. And, of course, that has a bad impact on the use of the internet and also access to information. You know, the right to information is also a fundamental right.

And what I would really like to point out here is that the difference between countries that have strong rule of law versus countries that have weak rule of law. And we’ve seen this in Pakistan. So, for example, a lot of times when we’re engaging with the government on regulation related to social media, they say, OK, but Germany’s brought in, you know, [the Network Enforcement Act] or France has this Avia law, or this country is bringing in this regulation. And, you know, a lot of times we’ve pointed this out, saying, OK, yes, they are, but they’re taking a long period of time in consultation, and a lot of times the laws are being repealed after they’ve been tested out.

But what such laws and regulations do is give a model to other countries that have weak rule of law to use such models and say, look, a liberal democracy is doing this. Why can’t we do this as well? But then they do it in a way that really undermines fundamental rights in that country, where you do not have the same democratic processes as efficient, as strong, in liberal democracies, where you’re able to easily strike down a regulation or law that is brought in once, right?

So Pakistan will emulate Germany or French law. The French courts will strike it down or the German government will get rid of the draconian measures, but the Pakistani government will stay with it. And then citizens are left to suffer. So a lot of times when we, you know, speak to governments internationally, we often say please be careful as to what kind of laws or regulations you pass, because it has an impact not only on your own citizens, but citizens in other countries that see you as models of democracy and often exploit those models of democracy for their own benefit or autocratic tendencies at home.

So, yeah, I think, you know, we have to be careful about what models we’re following and what the impact of those models are and what kind of borders we’re creating within the internet and be wary of that.

RACHEL GILLUM: Really insightful. Super helpful. Thank you so much for that.

And so as we look ahead, do we expect to see other countries form similar tech-ambassador roles? And do you think that would be a positive development in this area moving forward?

ANNE MARIE ENGTOFT LARSEN: I had the great pleasure of talking to a number of wonderful countries who are exactly thinking about doing this. And I want to say the more, the merrier… First of all, it allows us to get a different language, a different way to communicate between like-minded governments on some of these topics. And that helps us incredibly in building these strong international alliances.

Secondly, I think versus sort of going, as I said before, from sort of niche fringe to really at the core of foreign policy and diplomacy, I still very much believe in diplomacy being the right way forward because it is one that is resting on dialogue, on insisting, even where there is conflict, on maintaining open lines of communication. It is an avenue for finding solutions also with both those that are close allies and those who are not.

So I very much believe that we’re going to see more tech ambassadors coming… [To] anyone on this call, I would highly encourage your country to appoint tech ambassadors. And we’re starting to see more and more. Some of them are coming to live with Joe and I over in California. Others are back in capitals. But most importantly, we are starting to see, I think, a strengthened global collaboration on this.

JOE WHITE: I think that’s right. There is an interesting group forming here in San Francisco of both the tech ambassadors and the consuls general, all of whom, naturally being in this place, have got some element of that tech remit. So as they get more formalized in this tech role, and therefore the group of consuls general that [meets] here in San Francisco is always having good conversations about tech and tech policy.

And so I think it is important that more and more governments take that role. I think if everyone ends up with tech ambassadors or tech envoys, it will be as if we have none, as the tech companies will learn to fight us off in a similar way. But if it’s a general trend of all governments taking more seriously the impacts of tech on their economies, democracies, the way that things develop, then that can only be a good thing.

And I think the funneling of information back—you are struck by being here in California, not only how far away Washington, DC, is, but how far away Europe is. And, you know, I’m down here just south of San Francisco in the peninsula, and—where it really is eighty degrees most of the year-round. Things are mostly sunny and nice. And you can see, living in this bubble-like environment, how the tech companies can sometimes wonder, what’s wrong? Why are there issues with what we’re doing? You’re all getting some great fast-food delivery and all this kind of stuff.

So, therefore, having the views of the world represented in these parts is very important, just to broaden that understanding. So I think that’s something that does need to continue to develop.

USAMA KHILJI: I thought I’d agree with Joe there because I was just in San Francisco last month and it took me two weeks to get over that jet lag. So I can just imagine if you’re shuttling between Europe and California what kind of jet lag you’d be exposing yourself to.

But, you know, at the end of the day, I’d just like to repeat some of the points earlier made related to, OK, so if we have a lot of, you know, ambassadors and government officials engaging with tech companies, that’s great. But at the end of the day, I think, citizens’ rights should be fundamental to all conversations and center around them, because we’ve seen push from a lot of governments towards, you know, moves such as a back door to encrypted communication, which really doesn’t exist if, you know, one looks at how encrypted technology works. But there’s been a push from a lot of governments, and that can really impact, you know, the privacy of citizens and of secure communications that we see today.

And I think such moves from governments also require more multi-stakeholder engagement. And I think that’s where the role of civil society, not only from Europe or the United States but globally, is very, very fundamental. And I hope more multi-stakeholder conversations are held when policies are made by any government, because, like we know because of technology, we are way more interconnected than we previously were.

ANNE MARIE ENGTOFT LARSEN: … A big part of tech diplomacy for me is, obviously, representing this to the global tech industry, but it’s also engaging with multilateral organizations, with civil society. Denmark launched the Tech for Democracy Initiative two weeks back via our minister of foreign affairs and minister of international cooperation. We did that in a large event with a number of, you know, human-rights activists, civil-society defenders, [United Nations Development Programme]. I think we had more than thirty civil-society organizations from across the globe engaged in that.

And exactly to that point, one of the things that tech diplomacy is, it’s changing the role of the diplomat, whether that is engaging with the tech industry, understanding that industry and extending technology, learning that language. It is also one of bridging with civil society, human-rights defenders. And very much to your point, I think insisting on that dialogue and sort of keeping that triangle between [them]—and the multi-stakeholder aspect. So I think it’s just a very important point and one that I do see not just Denmark but a number of our colleagues working on tech diplomacy are increasingly taking up the baton.

RACHEL GILLUM: And that’s really great to hear. And that actually leads into some audience questions that are coming in… But it has to do with, you know, sort of a question about at what level of government should the engagement happen. And as Denmark is a member of the EU, would you like to see an EU presence in Silicon Valley engaging directly? Is that something that there’s a prospect for?

ANNE MARIE ENGTOFT LARSEN: Denmark has been spearheading and leading an effort to get a digital foreign policy for the EU. I think that a lot of what’s been happening at the internal market on regulation is great, but it’s been really focused on only the EU. And I remember talking to some of the people who were behind the CCPA, the California [Consumer] Privacy Act, and I remember they said, yeah, we Googled [General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)] to figure out what it was. So it was a little bit this, you know, European influence per default rather than by design. And I think that some of the, at least, experience that we’ve been taking from the much more proactive stance and this more political role of using tech in foreign diplomacy, I believe that the EU and Europe broadly had a really, really important role to play, both in the transatlantic relationship but also globally, as we are seeing this panning out also across other continents. So whether it is a tech envoy from the EU joining us over in Silicon Valley or, more importantly, I think a strategic and ambitious approach to leveraging European thinking, European visions, European ambitions, and you know, funding and all of these issues, I think it’s really important.

And that also goes to the point that I think Europe has a lot to still learn in this. I think we’re on the right course on the values, on the regulation, on really taking global leadership on some of this. But the referees don’t win the game. It is also about being part of that developing, cutting-edge—artificial intelligence, the discussions right now on semiconductors, quantum technologies. And building and maturing strength in also tech development is quite critical to doing that effectively.

RACHEL GILLUM: Thank you.

Another audience question. Maybe, Joe, you can pick this one off. Beyond sort of conversations around taxation and regulation, do you think big tech companies are ready and willing to embark on meaningful [conversations] about some of these geopolitical challenges that we discussed today, you know, around democracy and these other global issues?

JOE WHITE: Yeah, I think they are. I think that the evolution of tech in this space has gone from, you know, we’re just the good guys doing good stuff to the slow realization that maybe there are these negative externalities. And I think where they are now is, is that realizing that governments all over the world are beginning to now regulate in these places. And the thing that the tech companies I think are most afraid of would be a piecemeal set of legislations being formed all over the world by different nations and possibly even by different states in the United States itself. And so they, I think, for the first time are realizing that if they don’t fully engage and try and contribute to workable solutions for some of these things, they may find that policies get enacted into law which just cause real issues and you may find them having to obey things which have almost opposing implications when they’re legislated in Europe versus Asia versus Australia or the United Kingdom, wherever it might be.

And so they really realize there is an urgency now to engage in that. It’s not to say that that’s going to be a straightforward conversation. And I think as we’ve already discussed, [there are] issues in the detail of what you mean by these things in different places, but I think they’re up for that. And therefore, their strategy, if you like, is to try and figure out how they can find these anchor points of sensible legislation that can evolve. I think the point that someone made about different governments using the legitimacy of other processes to therefore jump on them but not maintain them in the same way with [calling] it democratic process is a real risk. I think that, as Anne Marie said, the EU is pushing in certain directions, and some of the tech companies are more afraid of those than perhaps they are in some of the others. So it’s a case of trying to find this balance between it all to get to something which has as few legal regions as possible but therefore meets the needs of the countries and citizens that these places represent.

RACHEL GILLUM: Wonderful. Thank you.

And this is something, certainly, we’d love to hear from all of you. At the Summit for Democracy, leaders are encouraged to announce specific actions and commitments to meaningful internal reforms and international initiatives towards the summit goals. And I want to hear from each of you if there’s anything, in particular, you’re hoping to hear in terms of tech and democracy or tech policy or anything sort of related to the discussion that we’ve had today.

ANNE MARIE ENGTOFT LARSEN: I think, first of all, there’s a lot of momentum right now, at least from the Danish perspective. We took the announcement of the summit back in the early spring really as a call to action, pressing how do we get much more ambitious on this agenda and act with a certain sense of urgency. My first hope is that when this summit is over on Friday we see real commitments, tangible commitments to leveraging aspects that we’ve been discussing today, whether it is on the thorny issues of policy, whether it’s on alignment, I think, and getting into the challenging area where there is tradeoffs; so questions around accountability, transparency, and how do we keep especially each other accountable for those commitments that we make.

From the Danish perspective, we’re, obviously, going to announce a lot of work under this sort of Tech for Democracy umbrella. That is going to be an intensified Danish commitment on making sure tech works for democracy, it’s a number of action coalitions, working with the tech sector, working with civil society, and with the Danish government both on issues on trustworthy information online, on supporting UN processes with broader representation through technology, and also one on engaging youth and children in discussion around tech and democracy.

And then on the Copenhagen Tech for Democracy Pledge, and I just do want to briefly pause on that. I think we have, you know, thousands of documents with principles and various, you know, commitments. The reason why this is important for us is because we need to, I think, sort of take one step up and be much more tangible about the commitments that we’re doing next year. What are we actually doing to keep the internet free, open, and safe for all? What are we actually doing on the accountability and transparency fronts? So these are some of the things that I’m going to be paying, I think, special attention to.

And secondly, I think to just see the support around democracy in the digital age that is not a fringe issue anymore. It’s not something that can be taken for granted, but it is very much something that we have to fight for together.

USAMA KHILJI: I’d just like to say that, you know, I’m super excited to see what comes out of it. But when we’re talking about democratic rights, I think it’s fundamental that, you know, conversations often tend to go between governments towards geopolitics and a lot of strategic issues. But when we talk about that we should be wary of the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, of the right to privacy, and the right to information that citizens have, and that we do not, as governments, no polices are made without keeping those fundamental rights of citizens in mind.

And I think it’s also very important at the same time to hold technology companies accountable, like Anne Marie said, especially around transparency [and] accountability. And there need to be a lot more efforts made by the technology companies to improve, how they communicate with citizens. So, for example, privacy policies of technology companies are super hard to read and very complicated, and they pretty much opt-in or coopt the consent of individuals. But I think the consent of internet users is fundamental and is super important.

We see the precedent of that having been set by the GDPR, and a lot of tech companies also, you know, set the minimum standards of GDPR for their functions in Europe. But I think that needs to be extended globally. So if they can do that for Europe, they should use those standards of privacy for the rest of the world as well. The conversations need to keep in mind nuances such as these.

JOE WHITE: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think the fact that these summits are now taking place, I think to Anne Marie’s point, is really showing there is a building of momentum here. I mean, you didn’t have these things some years ago. I think that people were starting to see the issues starting to bubble up and [weren’t] quite sure how to react, and now what you have is more of a concerted global effort to come together and say, hold on a sec, there’s something just not right with this.

And I think Usama describes it well, which is if we can get to the fundamental agreements of the rights of privacy, some of these core rights, and then how we express those—and this is where the legislation in different countries will start to figure out what’s the right framework for these things. And the European GDPR certainly set that going. CCPA in California was a slight evolution on that. You may see further ones trying to refine it. But I think GDPR has generally worked very well, though some bits of it perhaps haven’t worked so well. But we’ll see these evolving pieces of legislation.

And we’re in a place where I suspect over the next few years, ideally as quickly as possible, these [kinds] of summits can bring people together in those [fora] to recognize the commonality of some of these issues. Legislation that starts to pass in different parts of the world will take us forward. In some ways, this is like the startup approach of agile companies. You can have agile legislation—you know, Europe does this, the United Kingdom does this, Australia does that, Pakistan does this, and so on. We can learn from it as we go to figure out which are the right ways of building back this framework where it supports everybody, both the companies and what we do economically but also the citizens and our democracies themselves.

So I think, you know, summits like this are a great part. I don’t expect we’ll have a single one-shot breakthrough where it’s all solved, but the fact that these conversations are taking place in this forum with this level of high-level interest is super important.

RACHEL GILLUM: Great. Well, that’s a great way to close. Thank you again to each of our panelists. This was a wonderful conversation, very informative, and I think a lot more to come on this topic.

And thank you to the audience for joining us.

Watch the full event

360/StratCom 2021
December 6-8, 2021

360/StratCom 2021

360/StratCom is DFRLab’s annual, premier government-to-government forum focused on working with allies and partners to align free and open societies in an era of contested information.

Image: Sculpture installation 'Absorbed by Light' designed by the British Gala May Lucas and made by Berlin sculptor Karoline Hinz, in Progress on Tuesday, November 23, 2021. Photo via Artur Widak/NurPhoto and Reuters.