Denmark’s digital ambassador: should the UK be following suit?

 

By Steven McGinty

On 26 January, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that they would be appointing the world’s first ‘digital ambassador’ to act as the nation’s representative to major technology companies, such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

At a conference on the future of the Foreign Service, the Foreign Minister, Anders Samuelsen, explained that:

Denmark must be at the forefront of technological development. Technological advances are making such a great impact on our society that it has become a matter of foreign policy. I have therefore decided to announce the appointment of a digitisation ambassador.

In a follow up interview with Danish newspaper Politken, Mr Samuelsen expressed his belief that multinational technology giants “affect Denmark just as much as entire countries”. He highlighted the examples of Apple and Google whose market values are so large that if they were countries they would only narrowly miss out from inclusion in the G20 – the global forum for cooperation between the world’s 20 major economies.

As a result of this economic strength, together with tech firms’ impact on the everyday lives of citizens, Mr Samuelsen argues that the technology sector should be treated as a form of ‘new nation’, which Denmark must develop closer relationships with.

Cooperation between nation states and the technology sector

Technology companies are becoming involved in activities that were once reserved for nation states. For example, Mr Samuelsen’s Liberal party accepts donations in Bitcoin – an online currency which challenges the state’s role as the only issuer of legal tender. And Microsoft have signed a partnership agreement with the French Ministry of Education to provide teacher training, in order to prepare teachers for running special coding classes.

The technology industry argues that it is better placed than national governments to provide effective digital services, at cheaper prices. In terms of national security, computer engineering expert and academic, Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, argues that this is probably the case. Mr Ganascia highlights that Google and Facebook have vast image databases that enable them to use facial recognition software far better than any national security service. Therefore, countries have started working with technology companies on a variety of crime and public safety issues.

Citizens are also spending greater amounts of time on social media platforms. In an interview with The Washington Post, Mr Samuelsen stated that more than half of the world’s data has been created in the past two years (much of this from major platforms such as Facebook). This trend has implications for the privacy of citizens and the spreading of false information, a phenomena that has been labelled ‘fake news’. These issues are fundamentally important for citizens and nation states, and are likely to increase cooperation between countries and the technology sector.

Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs

Although Denmark will be the first country to introduce a digital ambassador, another government has made a similar appointment. In January, Dr Tobias Feakin was appointment as Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs. His role focuses on cyber-security, but also includes issues such as censorship and promoting internet access. At this stage, it’s unclear whether Dr Feakin will have direct contact with technology companies and whether this relationship will involve discussions over economic issues such as taxation.

Is a digital ambassador necessary?

Not everyone, however, is buying into the appointment of a government representative focused solely on digital issues. Technology journalist, Emma Woollacott, believes that it’s a ‘terrible idea’.

According to Ms Woollacott, Denmark already has a good relationship with technology companies, highlighting that Facebook has recently announced plans to build a new data centre in Odense, creating 150 new permanent jobs. These views may have some merit, as Mr Samuelsen has confirmed that the deal between the Foreign Ministry and Facebook was the result of three years of behind-the-scenes work.

Ms Woollacott also argues that Denmark is setting a worrying precedent by equating a private company to a nation state.  In her view, the importance of the technology sector could have been acknowledged through hiring knowledge staff, rather than granting it a ‘unique political status’.

However, Professor Jan Stentoft, who researches the insourcing of technological production to Denmark, believes creating the ambassadorial post is a good idea. He explains:

We have much to offer these companies, but Denmark is a small country, and we obviously need to make ourselves noticed if we are to attract them to the country.

Marianne Dahl Steensen, CEO of Microsoft Denmark, also welcomed the creation of a digital ambassador position, but did acknowledge that the company ‘can hardly be equated with a nation’.

Should the UK introduce a digital ambassador?

By introducing a digital ambassador, Mr Samuelsen is taking a pragmatic approach to ensure Denmark is a key player in the international digital economy, as well as attempting to manage the impacts of an increasingly digital society.

Although appointing an ambassador for the technology sector poses philosophical and ethical questions, the UK should closely monitor how this new role develops and the potential benefits (and challenges) it brings for Denmark. In particular, if the new role is able to improve dialogue between technology companies and the security services on matters such as privacy, or help address the sector’s need for digitally skilled workers, then maybe introducing a digital ambassador is something worth exploring.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other digital articles

Should the UK introduce a tax on sugar?

An assortment of liquorice allsorts sweets.

by Stacey Dingwall

Recent months have seen two enquiries to our Ask a Researcher service for evidence on sugar consumption in the UK. Namely: should this be taxed?

Sugar has become somewhat of a villain in the UK, with magazine articles, research and governments all telling us that we should be greatly reducing, or even eradicating completely, our consumption of added sugars in particular. The week beginning 30th of November even saw the first National Sugar Awareness Week, part of a campaign to encourage the government to establish a sugar reduction programme in the UK. However, is a ‘sugar tax’ really necessary?

Sugar consumption: a public health issue?

According to the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), absolutely. Last month, they published a review of how to tackle obesity in the UK, which included the introduction of a sugar tax. The report notes that, according to the latest forecasts, half of all adults in the UK are expected to be classed as obese by 2050. Key to reversing this trend, it is argued, is to tackle issues around diet and nutrition among children, who are now spending double the amount of time per day in front of screens than children in 1995 (something that has been shown to increase cravings for food and drink, but not for nutritionally sound items). Alongside other developed nations, the UK is also seeing an ever increasing rate of consumption of high-sugar carbonated drinks.

While the RSPH recommends placing restrictions, or ending, the use of advertising and sponsorship by junk food and drinks companies around family and sporting events, it also argues that this is not enough to tackle the country’s obesity problem. The RSPH supports the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks of 20%, or 20p per litre. Their report highlights evidence which suggests that this could prevent or delay around 200,000 cases of obesity per year, and points to the experience of Mexico, who introduced a tax of 10% at the start of 2014. During that year, sales of sugary drinks declined by 6% overall, and by 9% among those living in the most deprived areas of the country (the demographic group most likely to be obese).

What does the government think?

After a delay, the UK government published Public Health England’s (PHE) review of the evidence for action with regards to sugar reduction in October. The report:

  • agrees that too much sugar is consumed in the UK
  • favours a reduction in advertising to children
  • recommends the introduction of a tax on full sugar soft drinks of 10-20%

This, combined with a range of other measures, it is argued, could save the NHS £500 million per year. The PHE recommendation was also supported by the House of Commons Health Committee, in their recently published Childhood obesity – brave and bold action report. Having heard evidence from parties including Sustain and Jamie Oliver, a key figure in the campaign for the introduction of a sugar tax, the Committee recommended that such a levy should be introduced at 20%, in order to achieve maximum impact.

The Prime Minister, however, is still not convinced, stating that he believes there are “more effective” ways of tackling obesity. The government is due to publish a strategy on childhood obesity in the New Year.

What does the evidence say?

A number of countries have implemented a form of taxation on sugar or saturated fats. These include:

  • a tax on saturated fats in Denmark
  • Finland’s tax on sweets, ice cream and soft drinks
  • Hungary’s public health product tax
  • France’s tax on sugar- and artificially-sweetened beverages

According to a review of using price policies such as these to promote healthier diets by the World Health Organization, food pricing policies are feasible, and can influence consumption and purchasing patterns as intended, with a significant impact on important dietary and health-related behaviour. Crucially, however, the same review notes a lack of formal evaluation in this area.

A report published earlier this year by the activist group Taxpayers’ Union of New Zealand, Fizzed out: why a sugar tax won’t curb obesity,  questioned the validity of nutrition related taxes. Reviewing the experience of Mexico, they suggested that the reduction in consumption of sugary drinks following the introduction of an excise tax of one peso per litre in January 2014 had been overplayed.

It’s also the case that the Danish tax on saturated fats was repealed by the government after only one year. This was due to a number of economic impacts that quickly became apparent after the tax was implemented, and resulted in plans for similar taxes to be abandoned. In fact, fat consumption in Denmark has been on a downward trend for some time now, therefore no tax incentive was required. And according to the Danish minister of finance, “to tax food for public health reasons [is] misguided at best and may be counter‐productive at worst”.

Whether the UK Prime Minister will be swayed on this matter remains to be seen. It’s likely that a ‘sugar tax’ will continue to be deemed too politically sensitive to introduce, especially as one in five people continue to live below the poverty line.


Related reading
Child obesity: public health or child protection issue?

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