Although the digital revolution is now decades old, there still is no global digital economic order. Instead, there are competing visions of digital capitalism, predominantly articulated by the United States, China, and the European Union, which have been developing their models for many years and are increasingly exporting them to developing and emerging economies. Absent more global alignment, the world could miss out on promising technological solutions to shared problems.
The question, of course, is what kind of alternative digital order is possible in today’s world. How can the internet be reclaimed to serve citizens, rather than dominant political and economic interests? Realigning the incentives that drive the digital economy will not be easy. Still, recent policymaking efforts reflect demand for new forms of governance.
The OECD, for example, is leading an effort to tackle international tax arbitrage – a favored practice among US Big Tech firms. At the same time, US President Joe Biden has appointed industry critics to lead key institutions such as the Federal Trade Commission, and he has directed regulators to investigate the problem of undue platform power in digital markets.
Similarly, the Chinese government has introduced a new Personal Information Protection Law and is presiding over a major domestic antitrust campaign to control the country’s exploding digital market. And the European Union, building on its landmark General Data Protection Regulation, has advanced a more expansive ethics-led vision for governing data, digital markets, and artificial intelligence. Moreover, countries such as Spain and Germany are now targeting the data-extraction business model directly.
Regulators and governing authorities around the world are considering how to redefine their AI and data agendas, foster the next generation of digital players, and shape global standards to fit their own respective visions. But if each of these jurisdictions’ main goal is to rein in overpowered digital platforms, there may be common ground upon which to build a more effective global digital order.
EU and US digital authorities certainly don’t agree on everything. But they do share a vision of a more open and collaborative digital order. If they are going to align effectively behind this overarching goal, they need to understand what they are up against. Divergent visions for the foundational structure of the global internet have already put down deep roots.
In the emerging “splinternet,” informational isolation is on the rise. People within different silos have fundamentally different views about facts and thus what constitutes truth. There is not even agreement on how to secure and coordinate key features of the digital architecture, such as GPS. Each jurisdiction has its own framework, be it China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System, or Europe’s Galileo system.
This fragmentation in the governance of digital and informational power has been accompanied by rising illiberalism, with many countries pursuing more extensive social control and exploring new avenues for distributing propaganda. The cost of experimenting with new modes of digital authoritarianism has fallen significantly, because the basic tools are widely available and simple to use.
Platforms like Facebook have effectively subsidized the cost – unwittingly, but not necessarily unknowingly – of conducting disinformation campaigns at scale. Building the tech stack (software infrastructure) needed to create a totalitarian system of surveillance and social control is now as easy as assembling the right apps.
The digital order that has emerged in the absence of global coordination raises two critical concerns. The first is the digital side of major global challenges like climate change and pandemics, which exist independently of liberal or illiberal governments. Just as the effects of climate change will be experienced unevenly, the technologies needed for climate adaptation and mitigation – or for epidemic surveillance – will be unequally distributed.
The second issue is the incompatibility of competing visions for future digital economies. Many developing and emerging economies are still deciding how to expand and govern their digital capabilities so that new technologies serve their broader strategies to achieve sustained economic growth. These two concerns need to be addressed together. If measures to improve access to technology do not account for different local and national growth strategies, they may entrench an undesirable digital economic future, even if they promise progress against other issues such a climate change.
Addressing these concerns together bears directly on the pursuit of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Whether it comes to public health, education, or climate change, seeking global alignment ought to rank higher on any country’s agenda than securing narrow geopolitical gains. But, of course, realists must acknowledge that the current competition between models for data control, hardware design, and platform governance will loom large in any multilateral negotiation on these issues.
Given this, each of the three digital powers can come to the table with eyes open. Creating a more stable and coherent global digital order need not be about achieving full alignment between the three models. But failing to reflect on how and where these digital orders are incompatible may result in a race to the bottom rather than a race to the top. What matters in the short run is that there be a certain degree of interoperability in areas that touch on global challenges.
After two years of living with COVID-19, all major powers and regions should recognize the importance of sharing certain kinds of data freely. They now must start identifying other areas of common ground. A new and better digital order is possible, but it will not make itself.
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