Why techplomacy is more important than ever

Collaboration between the private and public sectors and the bridging of transatlantic views on concrete challenges like data flows and cyberthreats will be essential for governments, business and workers to succeed, writes DIGITALEUROPE’s Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl.
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By Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl

Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl is the Director General of DIGITALEUROPE and a member of the European Commission’s Industrial Forum

10 Dec 2020

Digital technologies have proved their worth this year, keeping us connected with the things that matter while we stay at home. Like pandemics, digital technologies transcend borders. The occasion of a new US administration reminds us of the importance of international collaboration and shows the value of ‘Techplomacy’.

Like Europe, the US is also suffering from the ill effects of the Coronavirus, both on its public health and its economy. The President- and Vice-President-elect will enter office at an unenviable time.

Therefore, it is understandable that the new administration will focus first on domestic matters. Jump starting the economy will require big, forward thinking investments.

We know that the Biden-Harris Administration has already proposed $300bn USD federal investment in breakthrough technologies such as artificial intelligence, and they want a renewed focus on research and development. Their campaign also talked about investing $20bn USD in bringing broadband infrastructure to rural areas.

This links well with the EU’s post-COVID-19 digital agenda, where the European Commission has earmarked almost €150bn for digital spending by Member States. This is on top of a €4bn increase in research and development spending in the normal budget.

Smart regulation will also have an important role to play in the world’s economic recovery. Often the barriers to small companies scaling up are not lack of funds but other things, such as the availability of good quality data or fragmented rules.

This applies both within the EU and internationally. In regulatory terms, the world is shrinking. In the digital sphere, this is definitely the case, with firms serving customers all over the world.

In the post-COVID age, alignment on AI, data, privacy and cybersecurity will be crucial, as well as on global challenges like climate change”

It is often said that when the US sneezes, the world catches a cold. The same could also probably be said now for China, whose market size and influence over the world economy makes it difficult to ignore. Ironically, the phrase was first coined in Europe, by Austrian politician Klemens von Metternich. With Europe’s current influence over tech regulation, you could say that the expression has now come full circle.

Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris comes from California, the US’ tech hub and where many of the world’s biggest digital companies are based. California has also been a US frontrunner in terms of digital regulation in recent years, with the state introducing its own similar version of GDPR. This is an example of something that Professor Anu Bradford has called the ‘Brussels Effect’, whereby EU rules are copied across the globe by virtue of the fact that companies want to access our market. The EU may not have a proper army, but it can still make its influence felt.

An issue that will be near the top of the transatlantic agenda in the coming weeks is the future of cross-border data flows. These are the lifeblood of our modern digital economy and were put under threat by a ruling from the European Court of Justice earlier this year. We desperately need to find a solution that works for the thousands of smaller companies in Europe that rely on current rules to do business, while respecting our privacy.

Our recent survey shows that 85 percent of European businesses – and 70 percent of SMEs – are using standard contractual clauses (SCCs), which were thrown into doubt by the ruling. This means there are a lot of businesses facing uncertainty at a time when they can ill afford it. The vast majority of these companies are sending and receiving personal data to and from the US.

Cooperation, therefore, is vitally important with our US friends. On 2 December, the Commission’s communication on the future of EU-US relations set out several fields where transatlantic cooperation will be vital in the months and years to come. In the post-COVID age, alignment on AI, data, privacy and cybersecurity will be crucial, as well as on global challenges like climate change.

Emerging technologies will also play a crucial role in our defence. I recently joined the NATO advisory group on this topic. In the past, technological innovations came from the military sector to the private sector, today, the tables have turned - with most innovations emerge from the private sector.

It is very encouraging that the alliance is thinking forward like this, gathering advice from industry to ensure it is on top of the latest technological developments. Cyberthreats are a very real issue for nations and companies alike, and dialogue between us will be the best way to keep our citizens safe.

“Our ability to innovate and learn from each other will help boost the global economy and build a secure international environment”

These are just some of the issues I discussed in November when I met with Denmark’s new Tech Ambassador, Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen, who represents her country in Silicon Valley. The position of Tech Ambassador, and concept of techplomacy was pioneered by Denmark, and other EU countries are starting to copy it. This position and growing importance of techplomacy shows the vital importance of collaboration across borders on these generation-defining issues.

Our ability to innovate and learn from each other will help boost the global economy and build a secure international environment. In addition, collaboration between the private and public sectors and the bridging of transatlantic views on concrete challenges like data flows and cyberthreats will be essential for governments, business and workers to succeed. Techplomacy is here to stay.

Read the most recent articles written by Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl - Time for Europe's industry to master its digital future

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