Denmark hired a tech ambassador. After what happened with Facebook, maybe every country should.
Casper Klynge is not a conventional diplomat. And serving as Denmark’s, and indeed the world’s, first tech ambassador required him to rewrite the international relations playbook.
The role of tech ambassador was created by the Danish government as a response to two main trends. One is that technology is now a driving force shaping the world – think the Trump-Russia scandal, Cambridge Analytica, etc. The other is that a small number of tech companies are the main catalysts for that change – enter Facebook.
“We’re taking diplomacy back to its roots,” Klynge said. It’s “about exercising national interests and trying to influence the direction of change on a global scale.” To carry out this unusual mandate, Klynge moved on from his post as the Danish ambassador in Indonesia, and arrived in Silicon Valley with the goal of putting “techplomacy” on the political map.
He cycles to work when he can, taking advantage of the predictably sunny weather in Palo Alto, lining up podcasts like “The Exponential View” and “Governing the Future” to get him started on his way to the embassy. Other days, Klynge tweets from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center just moments after the latest SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch, or from Microsoft HQ where he was recording a podcast on regulation and data ethics.
At a first glance, the role of tech ambassador seems more about PR than politics – and it’s something that has underlined previous reporting about Klynge’s appointment. Because the role is experimental and unconventional, it seemed at first that Klynge’s main tasks would be to play nice with the tech giants and lobby them on behalf of the Danish government.
But given the ever-deepening scandal surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, and the fact that 87 million users of the social network had their data scraped without their consent, Klynge is adamant the job isn’t just for show.
As tech ambassador, he is there to rethink the relationship between the private and the public sector in a particularly mercurial global arena that seems to be more akin to the Wild West years than the structural certainty of the Cold War.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg still mentions in interviews the sense of “idealism” the company had of building an unprecedented global community 10 years ago. But today, Facebook and other tech companies are setting another, much more real precedent – when they mess up, the authenticity of entire democratic processes, like elections, come under question.
“Techplomacy” is an unprecedented approach, too and its main task is responding to the changing contours of the international arena and engaging with the most influential actors – which now, seemingly, includes the big tech companies.
“The timing couldn’t have been better for the Danish Foreign Ministry to appoint a tech ambassador,” Klynge said. “The developments we’ve seen with Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, etc. – I think that’s a confirmation that you do need to have techplomacy. You do need to have direct dialogue with tech companies.”
Two of the most important aspects of this dialogue have to do with regulation and enforcing data ethics standards. Klynge said that his team’s main assessment after six months on the job is that, on the global scale, they don’t see anyone stepping forward, “picking up the bill” and proposing implementation of new standards on the right boundaries for technology.
And that’s certainly their goal, as well as the official foreign policy goal of Denmark and the European Union. In fact, techplomacy is one of the pillars of Danish foreign policy – it joins Brexit, the Arctic, as well as terrorism, instability, and migration.
“When we meet with the big tech companies here in Silicon Valley or elsewhere in Europe and Asia, of course we do hear quite a lot of criticism of European Union regulation and privacy laws. But when you ask them the same question, ‘What’s your response to that?’, then their answer is always the same, ‘We will implement it fully,'” Klynge said.
It’s part of a very deep misconception about big tech – “that all these companies are interested in is this sort of unregulated vacuum where they can do whatever they want,” Klynge said. “A lot of the companies are, quite desperately, looking for a conversation partner representing a country or region to define the right way forward for technologies.”
It makes practical sense that Denmark in particular and the EU as a whole are taking the lead in this. At the centre of the discussion about Facebook and privacy is the EU privacy law, called GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). It’s been in the works for a long time, but it will just happen to be the first major international crackdown to come into force post-Cambridge Analytica.
The GDPR comes in force May 25 and, at its core, it’s a law written to protect the privacy of all citizens of the Union’s 28 member states. All companies across the world will need to comply with this law and make sure all users consent to the data collected and shared about them. It’s a notable attempt at regulating that Wild West of big tech, and it’s setting the tempo for the rest of the world. “The EU is basically setting the global standards in the technology ecosystem in a very fundamental way,” Klynge said.
That’s the kind of dialogue he and his team are most concerned about and interested in precipitating with their partners in tech. “We’re not here to sugarcoat the technology companies,” Klynge said. “We’re here to try influence issues that we don’t necessarily agree with the tech companies about. That could be about misinformation or the accusation of influencing election campaigns – both of which go to the core of democracy.”
It’s exactly the same playbook of using dialogue with other embassies to solve problems and conflicts on the ground. The key difference here is the actors – the recognition that tech giants do not only wield power because they are ridiculously wealthy. They are becoming superpowers, to use classic Cold War jargon, in their own right. And Klynge is there to treat them as such, but also offer them a helping hand and opportunity to join the grown-ups’ dinner table.
“Companies are beginning to realise they cannot be left alone to self-regulate some of these big, big issues”
It’s important to note that Klynge fully recognises that neither Denmark, nor the EU, can push through change on their own. But he also understands the importance of leverage. Cambridge Analytica is the key to shifting the narrative. It’s a chance to get a critical mass going at a time when big tech seems ready to strike a responsible balance between commercial interests and ethical rules.
“That’s why you’re seeing companies like Microsoft proposing a digital Geneva convention – companies are beginning to realise they cannot be left alone to self-regulate some of these big, big issues,” Klynge said.
This seems to underline Denmark’s prioritisation of techplomacy – an area where “we punch above our weight” among the 28 EU member states. Now France has an equivalent appointment, too, with the Council of Ministers announcing the position of a French ambassador for digital affairs in November, 2017. Klynge is sure others others follow suit, too.
For him, this is a necessary response to underlying changes in global affairs. Denmark may be a relatively small country compared to, say, Germany, but those metrics no longer weigh up in the same way. States and the governments they appoint have ceased to dominate people’s existence in the same way they did a century ago. Instead, it’s a new era dominated by cross-national identity politics, (mis)information and data.
Klynge has found himself in the hotseat of this new era where the main actors are not primarily states. And more importantly, where material forces or wealth are not the most important trump card – data and information is. “Tech will define the winners and losers of tomorrow and whether countries, including developing economies, will be able to reap the benefits of the digital age,” he said.
Klynge’s portfolio (which includes a stint as an assistant professor of international relations back in the day) is constantly expanding. Currently, his office contains a staff of 16, but his mandate is not entirely U.S.-centred. “We’re probably going to be opening up in Africa in the not so distant future.” he said. Klynge is also keeping his hand on the pulse in Asia with a office which opened up in Beijing.
These are undoubtedly uncharted waters because there are no defined rules to this new game, but Klynge is already setting the trend for others to follow. Klynge has only been doing it for six months, so he says it’s too early to gauge the success of his role. But, as we have learned in the past, if Denmark’s doing it, everyone wants to follow suit.