Digital technology has never had a more important role to play in geopolitics than it does today. Tensions over trade, regulation, and even sovereignty are rising as tensions between the West and the Rest continue to intensify. However, discussions continue to be muddled by the conflation of techno-nationalism and techno-feudalism.
In the mid-17th century, the Peace of Westphalia ended decades of bloody war by laying the foundation for the modern nation-state. And now, I propose that a new peace must be struck for our increasingly digitalized world that puts the nation-state back at the heart of discussion, allowing the plethora of social actors to meaningfully participate in the creation of common digital futures.
The Shifting Paradigm
Techno-nationalism generally describes the reaction to growing concerns about digital sovereignty and the relationship between digitalization and national security. Many states’ lack of control over digital technology infrastructures allegedly weakens their ability to govern their borders.
Prime examples of how techno-nationalism plays out lie in the US’s prohibitions on high-tech exports to China, the European Union’s intended phasing out of Chinese telecom equipment vendors, and China’s own restrictions on the export of critical minerals.
But if the true impetus behind techno-nationalism is concern over control and jurisdiction, then the real threat many nations are faced with is techno-feudalism, a trait particularly associated with the expanding capacity of Big Tech to earn rents by dominating critical resources – in this case, storage and computational and algorithmic infrastructure.
Techno-feudalism highlights concerns about the power of a small number of big technology firms – major platform developers and operators – to extract rents and other forms of power due to their dominance of foundational data infrastructure. The power of Big Tech cannot be seen more clearly than in the US, where hordes of lobbyists have been successfully mobilized to stymie congressional efforts to introduce anti-trust bills. Techno-feudalism can have cross-border impacts, which is why many countries are introducing regimes that curtail the autonomy and power of these data “landlords”. However, the Americans and Europeans continue to be some of the largest beneficiaries of the current feudal state of our digital landscape. US companies have a historic dominance over standards and global standards-setting, allowing them clear commercial benefits by way of licensing revenues and ecosystem lock-in. Their power is in part shared with their State counterparts. State agencies are able to regularly compel big data companies to hand over data on individuals, and when they can’t they turn to the marketplace. As explained in a recent piece by Anne Toomey McKenna, the personal information of US citizens has been sold by commercial data brokers to numerous government agencies over the years, including the FBI, the Department of Defense (DoD), and the NSA.
Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that the American government and their big tech industry have a vested interest in retaining their hegemonic position. The very public spats between the US and China over 5G network technologies is perhaps the most prominent example of this protectionist mindset. The DoD’s own Defense Innovation Board even publicly acknowledged in 2019 that the US had already lost first-mover opportunities in both standards and technologies worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and recommended they rely on attacks like export controls and aggressive intellectual property protection to slow China’s telecommunications ecosystem expansion.
This has resulted in much commentary focusing on the China-US dynamic, framing the evolution of technological regimes as a bilateral contest. While there will always be a bilateral element to discussions when only two nations’ economies dominate the globe, a real peace will only be found when we turn our focus away from the US-led neoliberal regime of digitalized “free for all” and towards a system that ensures nation states play a key role in domestic and cross-border data governance, whilst establishing strong interoperability.
To fight tech-feudalism, three key things must be promoted: data sovereignty, open source protocols, and an ability for societies and their institutions to form viable collective truths.
Unregulated data flows nurtured the rapid spread of the Internet and digitalization post 1996. Big Tech was able to commercially benefit as they monopolized the infrastructure upon which data was created and flowed, and they then reinvested in strengthening that system, connecting people around the world as they grew their platforms. However, as the system matures, this value flow to Big Tech (and its State champions) away from everyday citizens has become increasingly predatory.
The supra-national reach of tech giants, while currently supported by US techno-nationalists, is already facing opposition within the EU and China as they each pursue stronger digital sovereignty. The EU’s GDPR puts forth that data governance must be subordinated and answerable to sovereign polities in a manner that enables global interoperability via collaborative multilateral framework development. China’s Positions on Global Digital Governance has an even wider-ranging framework than GDPR, but readily accommodates the GDPR and other such national or pan-regional measures. Further measures to strengthen digital sovereignty under this style of multilateral cooperation will be needed to regulate data flows across international borders.
In addition to regulating international value flows, the information systems themselves that the digital world is built upon must also be reformed. To truly move away from the current feudal order of our digital paradigm, systems must be both transparent and accessible to the relevant stakeholder community.
Rather than use intellectual property as barriers to social participation in the design, implementation and operationalization of data ecologies, open source paradigms encourage continual engagement and reflection. While certain open source technologies, like Linux kernel, have long underpinned digitalization, others have lagged behind propriety systems in many domains, both in terms of adoption and speed of development.
This situation may well be coming to an end, as many firms, particularly those in China, actively embrace the possibilities and benefits of open source technologies and platforms. Huawei and Intel were the top two contributors to the Linux Kernel 5.10, the core of the Linus open source operating systems, when it was released in December 2020, and Apple Intel, Google, and Nvidia have recently joined Baidu and Alibaba in backing the open-source chip architecture RISC-V.
The final weakness that has been unintentionally cultivated by our neo-liberal digital paradigm is unregulated social media. The impact it has had on what can be called “collective truths” cannot be understated. Without a foundation of collective truths – what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation called the “sacramental order” – social cohesion, stability, and functionality become impossible. In his book The Burnout Society, Han Byung-Chul argues that through social media, data volume creates a false impression of common social truths, but in reality, these algorithms drive social fragmentation into irreconcilable truth-camps.
While governments themselves do not need to regulate “truth” for their citizens, the need for commonly recognized authorities that others can rely upon for truth claims is critical for a functioning society. It is therefore imperative that we more explicitly engage with the discussion about what conditions are necessary for persons with expertise and experience to be recognized as authorities.
Global digital dynamics cannot and should not be reduced to a simple US-China competitive frame, and we must step away from the idea of a trilateral race for digital power between US, China, and Europe. As digitalization rapidly propels us towards the future, we must consider it under a new paradigm, and view the challenges ahead through the lens of a Digital Westphalia.
This new paradigm I propose can remedy the fears of all parties involved about the value retained from the digital economy in their own territory whilst retaining the benefits of a joint technological innovation system that holds open source at its core.
We must accept that the nation-state still matters, not just in the governance of the production, distribution, and flow of data across national boundaries, but also to regimes that emphasize the imperatives of information systems that contribute to the formation of sustainable common truths. We must ensure that digitalization – and the proliferation of social media in particular – does not undermine the foundations of a functional society and the common information repertoire under which members of that society can agree to operate by.
If proprietary systems once acted as walled-gardens with high barriers of entry, an open source Digital Westphalia offers an alternative pathway for societies around the world to fast-track their own versions of digitalization.
Europe should be particularly wary of the tendency to retain and strengthen the techno-feudalistic status quo by the US. Brussels and member-state policymakers should carefully weigh their own interests while pursuing the goals set out in the Digital Decade Communication. Digital Westphalia offers a pathway to achieve these goals quickly by augmenting the region’s own digitalization drive and setting out clear and equal standards for all suppliers that keep the market open to the technologies that underpin digitalization.
Thanks to China Going Global Thinktank Service (CGGT) for sponsoring this post.