Digital truce at times of post-crisis

MORI Building DIGITAL ART MUSEUM teamLab Borderless, Tokyo (Japan). Photo: rabbit_akra (CC BY 2.0). Elcano Blog
MORI Building DIGITAL ART MUSEUM teamLab Borderless, Tokyo (Japan). Photo: rabbit_akra (CC BY 2.0)
MORI Building DIGITAL ART MUSEUM teamLab Borderless, Tokyo (Japan). Photo: rabbit_akra (CC BY 2.0). Elcano Blog
MORI Building DIGITAL ART MUSEUM teamLab Borderless, Tokyo (Japan). Photo: rabbit_akra (CC BY 2.0)

Digital dividends co-exist with digital divides. Critical junctures reveal at what extent the scope, spread and speed of those Global Commons which are not merely up to States are likely to produce a significant turn. In the case of the current coronavirus crisis, cyberspace and complex digital-based world are testing terrains, playgrounds, and trial and error processes. In their negative uses –cyber-attacks on hospitals databases, phishing exercises–, their yet unsolved uses –privacy protection in data traceability for health reasons–, and their positive uses –telecommunications global networks reinforcement, welfare aid, and data sharing with purposes of civil protection and security.

Procedures and management systems draw on three techniques in order to face these digital fractures: data, cyber intelligence and cyber defence, and physically-based technological structures. Country level is the first response layer, due to its immediacy and need for protection of critical infrastructures –such as electric grids, water supply centres, gas stations, telecommunications, and others. It is also the first responder as it enables the continuity of economic activity by means of teleworking and data sharing through the digital.

However, while it is true that these necessary efforts will set up protection structure with best lessons in the long run for future crises, the digital world knows no frontiers. And it transforms itself even quicker than the very society. Moreover, there are increasingly diverging digitalisation approaches, with differing responses, standards and protocols. These are multiple: the European Union’s proposal –focused on data protection and data re-use–, China –oriented to data processing centralization–, and the United States –with public-private partnerships, but with an unclear strategy, such as the recently released U.S. National Strategy on 5G proves, being more a vision statement than an actionable strategy.

Digital cooperation and governance

In June 2019, the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation at the United Nations released a highly innovative report: ‘The Age of Digital Interdependence’. This document addresses the need to enhance digital cooperation, in order to reduce the fragmentation of interconnectedness that defines the digital age, the competing standards and approaches, and the lessening trust. The objective is to work collectively to face the economic, legal, ethical, social and political impact of digital technologies, by maximizing the benefits and minimizing harms, both tangible and intangible, and complying with the Sustainable Development Goals. There are Roundtables by concrete topics: Connectivity, Digital Public Goods, Digital Inclusion, Global Help Desks for the Public Sector, Digital Human Rights, Artificial Intelligence, Security and Digital World, and Digital Cooperation Architecture.

Under the current crisis context, which adds up more value to the already-existing deglobalization scenario, digital cooperation remains an essential pillar when tackling, not only the very digital-related effects, but also the emerging ones which will pop up as a result of the coronavirus crisis. These are the likely digitalisation tendency of prior physically-based economic activities; high economic impact; budgetary public prioritization; renovation of global supply chains; abrupt unemployment rates; social tensions and new mobilization modalities; rethinking of the European Union; the questioning of the U.S. global leadership; the image and reputation campaigns in China; and the review of the national and international security architecture with regards to pandemics prevention and response.

Digital cooperation schemes require two working avenues, which are neither exclusive nor partitioned: multilateralism, and multistakeholderism. The former showed and still shows strong tensions. China and its leading company, Huawei, are developing a New Internet Protocol (IP) Proposal, which aims at creating a “new community of shared future in cyberspace”, totally excluded from the existing Internet. This proposal is highly expressed in the International Telecommunications Union’s meetings, as well as in the Internet World Conference, annually held in Wuzhen, near the city of Shanghai. United States’ scepticism towards the European Union’s Strategy on Shaping Europe’s Digital Future is also a proof of this tension. The EU proposes its own ‘Next Generation Internet’, although it is limited to standards and data sharing ecosystems. However, the second avenue –multistakeholderism, which includes the private sector, civil society, academics and technologists- does not take a coordinated grip on this issue either. The uncentralized approach dampens the success of this effort. While the private sector usually join together to express their own Call for Actions –Artificial Intelligence’s regulations–, civil society and academia tend to group themselves in other coalitions, such as the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace.

However, cooperation is not as simple, and it does not have a single definition or nature. One can speak about digital cooperation in terms of pooling (aggregation, centralisation of resources) or sharing (exchange or distribution of resources from a centralized focal point towards other nodes). Some actors end up combining both modalities, such as the NATO when it collaborates with the European Union for cyber defence and smart defence capabilities building, especially for the C4ISR-Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. But cooperation can also vary under the criteria of resources: the International Telecommunications Union created, as a result of the coronavirus, a Global Network Resilience Platform with the purpose of maintaining global connectivity during the pandemics. Resources are information collection and gathering on best practices and information sharing with other actors; technical assistance to ensure broadband services availability, affordability, accessibility and resilience; possible physical capabilities sharing; and common standards for consumer protection and prioritization of data trafficking.

In conclusion, cyberspace and digital world are nothing new. However, incoming risks which introduce –themselves and as a result of their use– require the creation of a framework of digital cooperation whose first limitation, in some cases, lies in the lack of this scheme at the country level. The current pandemics has exceeded management capacity from national and international crisis systems, which in the last decades have been limited to epidemics, with a less crosswise impact. At present, structural reforms turn out to be urgent public policies to be set up, not only with regards to digital governance, but also in its interconnectedness with other areas and structures –such as national security and social goods– with regards to resources, protocols, regulations, and relationships. Only in this way States, and not only people, may and will be in good health.