Digital Soft Power and Technological Firepower

China is now following in the United States’ footsteps in becoming a leader in global digital control. China and the U.S. are a duopoly in the process of creating a new world order. We urgently need to define a new framework for international digital cooperation, writes Solange Ghernaouti, director of the Swiss Cybersecurity Advisory & Research Group.

Both Chinese and American digital giants have received government support from the countries they operate in as they spin their worldwide web against a backdrop of globalization, neoliberalism and brutal international economic relations.

The United States is imposing its worldview and technological supremacy through its domination of the internet and digital technology. The “Made in USA” internet paradigm seems unavoidable, whether it’s service, storage, big data or geolocation. China has also taken over the internet, by playing by its own rules and taking advantage of the American experience. China invests in the digital world mainly by investing in information technology and telecommunication equipment (computers, telephones, routers, network infrastructure, 5G and artificial intelligence), as well as e-commerce. New business transactions, online payments and population control have paved the way for the creation of new “Silk Roads” in both the physical and cyber worlds, as evidenced by the export of computer products manufactured in China. Europe is not self-sufficient when it comes to digital technology and is dependent on the American-Chinese duopoly. It has relinquished ownership of its data, giving the stakeholders in control a considerable edge in the development of artificial intelligence.

General Data Protection Regulation

Service providers all over the world have been able to capture data and keep their users docile by claiming that they’re facilitating people’s access to entertainment, to supposedly free platforms and socialization tools, and claiming that they are making people’s browsing experiences easier. U.S. technology has established itself in all public and private sectors and managed to leverage considerable power, support and backup from the government, legal system and North American diplomacy. To name just one example, the 2018 Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act, known as the CLOUD Act, allows U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies to obtain data on non-U.S. citizens stored on U.S. company servers (Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft) without having to warn users. It allows law enforcement to request data from the servers of these American internet giants, even if the data centers are located in Europe or elsewhere outside the U.S. This is so even without rogatory international letters, and even if access to this information undermines economic security, company competitiveness or the country’s national security. With no legal procedures in place for mutual legal assistance, countries cannot oppose the seizure of this data or refuse to cooperate. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which came into effect in May 2018, is of no help.

The massive adoption of digital technology has paved the way for a new world order based on algorithmic control over our morals, our private and professional lives and economic and political governance. It has done this not with overt violence but through the tyranny of transparency, computerized surveillance and ongoing monitoring.

Cybernetics Takes Over

Under the guise of economic performance and streamlining, technology stakeholders have been able to dominate entire sectors of the economy. They’ve also convinced company directors to outsource all or part of their cloud computing infrastructure and sometimes even their cybersecurity. The dominant rulers of the net have systematically annihilated any possibility of thinking about or developing alternative solutions. They’ve weakened their competitors through legal action (lawsuits, patents, hostile takeovers and partnership regulations), acquisitions and innovation, which allows them to grow their empires and ramp up their control.

Artificial intelligence is just one of the weapons in their technological arsenal, which is controlled by only a small number of countries and large private stakeholders.

The customs and culture of the digital age are instruments of the soft power that the U.S. wields, and China has followed in its footsteps as the only country capable of competing with the U.S. in the digital realm, as evidenced by the 5G battle between the United States and China. Data and algorithms are changing our relationships, as well as how we behave, see the world, think, live, make love and war, dream and invent. Cybernetics, whose etymology derives from the art of governing, forces its way in and dominates everything. Every action mediated by technology distances people from the real world, and this reprogrammed way of life has now enshrined itself in the system.

This geographical and emotional distance enables people to go to war and experience the horror of the battlefields. The art of warfare has become controlled by a war algorithm that’s instructions are determined by artificial intelligence. Cyberattacks on vital IT infrastructure systems (in hospitals or nuclear power plants, for example) can lead to loss of life. A cyber-fighter hidden behind a screen can kill just as easily as if he were playing a video game. It’s difficult to track the origin of cyberattacks and misinformation campaigns, and to identify the culprits. Cyberspace provides a layer of protection for attackers to hide behind.

Toward International Digital Cooperation

A country’s political, military and economic powers are linked to their ability to control information technologies. Winning and preserving market share involves spying, surveillance, business intelligence, cybersecurity, digital misuse and cyberattacks.

Technological firepower, such as artificial intelligence, is controlled by only a small number of countries and large private stakeholders. This raises complex issues related to disarmament, stakeholders’ roles and responsibilities, control of offensive and defensive computer codes, infrastructure resilience and sustainable digital development (the environmental impact of the disposal and recycling of electronic waste, energy consumption, global warming and greenhouse gasses).

We’re now facing new and unprecedented geopolitical, ecological, social, cultural and economic challenges. They will make us question our ability to consider peace and our willingness to transform technological innovations into progress. To mobilize around a coherent and loyal international digital cooperation that protects life and defends multilateralism is today more than ever, it seems to me, a necessity.

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