Europe in the World


Podcast: Digital Connectivity in times of COVID-19

25 Jun 2020 - 10:02
Source: Piqsels
Café Clingendael

The German Institute for International and Security Affairs – Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) and the Clingendael Institute are collaborating on digital geopolitics and connectivity in the light of the corona crisis.

Listen to the newest podcast of Café Clingendael with Annegret Bendiek (SWP), Nadine Godehardt (SWP), Maaike Okano-Heijmans (Clingendael) and moderator Brigitte Dekker (Clingendael).


Podcast highlights

Global connectivity and entanglement through multinational companies, platforms and hubs have strengthened interdependencies while at the same time driving geopolitical rivalries and challenging international norms on the free flow of information and (digital) human rights. For Europe, this raises major questions about the sustainability of digital sovereignty in a globalized world and how Europe can set and pursue strategically relevant foreign and security policy objectives towards China. Digital places of exchange – nodes, networks, infra-structure, people or applications – are increasingly becoming a strategic matter of geopolitics. With COVID-19 the fragility and significance of this connectivity became visible in an instant. It forces us to rethink the trade-offs between globalization and digitization as well as between economy, privacy, liberal freedom and security.

Brigitte Dekker: We will start with a brief introduction on connectivity and more specifically digital connectivity. Nadine, could you give us a short connectivity 101?

Nadine Godehardt: Connectivity nowadays has become a political buzzword. This clearly started with the globalization of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) around 2015, although the term connectivity was already used among Southeast Asian countries at the beginning of 2010. In 2015, Japan with its Partnership for Quality Infrastructure and, lately, even the EU formulated a strategy on connectivity Asia and Europe also joined the “connectivity club” – both rather in reaction to the Chinese BRI.

In many ways, we are already in the midst of an ongoing competition of connectivity strategies without actually having a clear understanding of the novelty of this term and how it is linked to the changing nature of international order. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and, more importantly, the political reactions to it further underpin the al-ready established geopolitical significance of connectivity in world politics.

This also means: How actors (and things) are connected with each other seems increasingly more relevant than the question whose side governments are on. So, the geopolitical purpose of connectivity practices and strategies clearly differentiates this new type of connectivity from classic understandings of “connectedness”.

Brigitte Dekker: I can imagine that especially the digital domain fits perfectly to this concept of connectivity. In your view, what does the increased attention on connectivity mean for digital connectivity?

Nadine Godehardt: It is quite obvious that the digital adds another dimension to politics and, thus, also to connectivity. Still, the digital is also very different from previous conditions of connectedness, particularly regarding the scale or quality of connectivity and the incredible speed of digital technology-induced innovation processes that constantly challenge existing ideas of sovereignty, power and political order.

But this is not what makes the digital necessarily relevant to geopolitics. The geopoliticization of connectivity, however, does. This also becomes particularly apparent in times of the COVID-19 crisis.

Brigitte Dekker: Talking about COVID-19 and the current situation, Maaike, – in one of your articles, you refer to the COVID-19 crisis as the world’s first digital pandemic . What do you mean by this and how does it relate to digital connectivity?

Maaike Okano-Heijmans: My main aim with introducing the concept of digital pandemic back in March was to focus the attention of the debate – and, ultimately, policymaking – on some long-term consequences of Covid19. Because this pandemic has highlighted several trade-offs in the economic and security domains that come with globalization and digitization, forcing us to rethink efficiency and resilience. To my mind, keywords herein are national sovereignty and individual privacy in the digital age.

Brigitte Dekker: So, why label Covid19 a digital pandemic?

Maaike Okano-Heijmans: First, COVID-19 is a digital pandemic because of its origin. After all, the restriction of digital freedom of speech by the Chinese government impeded effective action against the virus at an early stage. And that, in turn, had disastrous effects on the rest of the world. This is not to say that the spread of the virus could have been prevented altogether, and also not denying that the Chinese government took forceful steps to limit the spread of the virus at a later stage. What I am drawing attention to is the fact that the Chinese government’s restrictions on digital freedom of speech caused great suffering in China itself and are now doing enormous damage to other countries.

As such, the pandemic requires to reassess connectivity, including digital connectivity and supply chains, with specific parts of the world. And it should push us to step up our efforts to uphold and protect digital human rights at home and abroad. Second, Covid19 is a digital pandemic in its effect. Governments around the world are resorting to digital instruments to combat the virus. Artificial Intelligence and big data analysis play a valuable role herein. In Europe, more than in other parts of the world, we have been on guard for potentially far-reaching consequences for individuals’ privacy, as the use of digital instruments such as mass surveillance could become normalised.

Brigitte Dekker: Annegret, do you agree with this assessment and in what way do you think digital technologies can be a tool for fighting the pandemic in Europe?

Annegret Bendiek: It is a matter of fact that COVID-19 has been threatening Europe’s cohesion. Rebuilding trust and identifying joint solutions in the EU will be crucial to overcoming the pandemic and a top priority of the German presidency.

In contrast to some Asian countries, the EU is implementing a multi-stakeholder approach in digital policy including academia, civil society and public institutions in defining the Euro-pean way in the information and communication space. The debate about a Pan-European Covid-19 app is a good example for the atmosphere within Europe right now. On 1 April the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) was presented. 300 scientists have heavily criticized a central data storage. Therefore, a decentralized approach was published by Decentralized Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP-3T). European Data Protection Supervisor called for the Pan-European Covid-19 app. Telecom operators agreed to share aggregated mobile phone location data with the European Commission to track the spread of the coronavirus. Poland was the first EU country to launch a mobile application amid the pandemic, which requires people to take selfies to prove they are quarantining and their personal data will be stored for six years. Unacceptable for other EU countries: Germany, Ireland, UK, France, Italy and Spain are developing their own apps. Collecting an individu-al movement in the context of contact tracing apps would create major security and privacy issues.

Brigitte Dekker: And do you think that we will be trading privacy for security, if we talk about digital health policies?

Annegret Bendiek: The executive in Europe is arguing that we can have privacy and security. It is not a zero-sum game, said the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency . In reality, this balance has to be defined by parliaments on all levels of policy-making in the EU. Therefore, on the 8th of April 2020, the European Commission adopted the need of a common toolbox for the use of technology and data, in order to fight and exit the Covid-19 crisis, with a particular focus on the use of mobile applications. The most important benchmarks are, among others, the temporary (i.e., deletion of remaining personal data and proximity information as soon as the crisis is over) and voluntary (i.e., consent-ba-sed installation) nature of the Apps. The crisis has shown that the EU's data protection rules are flexible enough for the use of data in the health crisis and yet preserve fundamental rights. The response to the pandemic shows, though, how difficult it still is for data protection authorities to coordinate their approach, which means they need improved cooperation and more resources. Also, because the planned contact tracking apps will probably mean that more people will have Bluetooth permanently activated in the future, it would be important to quickly conclude a data-protection-friendly ePrivacy Regulation that sets limits to the risk of 'offline tracking' using this technology.

Brigitte Dekker: Do you agree with this, Maaike?

Maaike Okano-Heijmans: I certainly agree that people’s trust is a requirement for the success of tracing and monitoring apps. Also, because without trust, it will be almost impossible to convince a substantial number of citizens to download and use these apps. That said, I like to take a step back in our debate on the use of digital tools to detect, monitor and, hopefully, prevent epidemics from spreading as fast and far as Covid-19 did.

And I would like to make another point here. Clearly, data privacy is something to be protected. But is it not surprising that now, we in Europe put all our faith in two US tech giants, namely Apple and Google. I believe that it is a great pity that just when the EU proposed its pan-European coordinated approach last April, two US tech giants intro-duced their own solu-tion, with data remaining (for the greatest part) on user’s devices. And that – fast forward – we are now in a situation wherein all EU member states that produce a tracing app need to use this shared platform offered by Apple and Google.

That is another episode of the Big Tech companies winning EU governments over, several of which had intended to build their own solutions with more European standards. But these would have taken longer to build and even then they would likely leave much to be desired.

Brigitte Dekker: This brings us back to the question about the future of the EU’s digital foreign policy and the power balance in the world. But perhaps first, we should zoom out a bit to the geopolitical side of connectivity. Nadine, how do you think that the digital pandemic and the digital tools to fight the pandemic will impact the view on digital connectivity in world politics?

Nadine Godehardt: In a nutshell, the COVID-19 crisis made visible that non-authoritarian governments are also perfectly willing to use digital technology in the name of public safety and security. So, speaking from a geopolitical viewpoint, this crisis shows that the way digi-tal technologies are used is not necessarily dependent on the respective political system. Meaning that there is an increasing need for more detailed research and com-parisons of authoritarian practices (particularly regarding digital technology) in democratic and non-democratic countries.

Brigitte Dekker: Coming back to the EU, who just published a digital strategy. Annegret, do you think this is a timely step forward or a step too late?

Annegret Bendiek: In the upcoming German presidency digital sovereignty is high on the agenda. However, the huge amounts of data generated in the digital economy are currently managed almost exclusively by American and increasingly Chinese global companies. In order to be able to maintain its independence, the EU will have to find a third way in the future that goes beyond the neoliberal market logic of North American global companies and Chinese digital authoritarianism. With the aim to come closer to this goal, the European Council under the German Council Presidency should instruct the EU Commission to align its digital agenda with clear principles and coordinate it transatlantically.

After all, the digital single market is deeply rooted in the transatlantic economic area, and only together with the USA and Canada will the EU achieve the necessary market power to be able to defend its principles forcefully on a global scale. The Council should also mandate the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, to represent an internal market foreign policy . This could lead to stronger and enhanced multilateral cooperation in climate, health and research. Finally, I think classical diplomacy should be open up for multistakeholder formats, including civil society, academia, industry and parliamentarians. Executives should justify their summit policy by reporting to their national parliaments since the parliamentary dimension of European cyber diplomacy is mostly missing in all these debates.

Follow @MaaikeOh, @BrigitteDekker_and @Clingendaelorg on Twitter