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.
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