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Tech Diplomacy: An Evolving Concept

July 15, 2022 | Expert Insights

Without our knowledge, we are becoming victims of Big Tech Giants. Technology comes with weighted values, with the perception of what is right or wrong varying between the technology user and the provider. This makes it imperative for the user to remain alert to the dangers posed by technology and raise questions accordingly. As aptly put by Dr AS Kiran Kumar Rao, the former Chairman of ISRO, “I think it’s a very good initiative to be asking such questions and then make more and more people aware of things that are happening without their actual knowledge. More so because much that is being done with technology is with the prime objective of making money.”


This is where Tech Diplomacy comes in. It is a new word which should not be confused with ‘Digital Diplomacy’ (which is no different from normal diplomacy except that it extensively depends upon digital tools). Tech Diplomacy has a much wider bandwidth and incorporates critical technologies such as AI, semiconductors, 5G, the Internet of Things, quantum computing, VR etc. Denmark could be credited for coining this word in 2017 when they appointed the first Tech Ambassador in Silicon Valley with a ‘global mandate.’ The approach, colloquially called ‘techplomacy,’ is a pioneering initiative that elevates technology and digitalisation to a crosscutting foreign and security policy priority. It is aimed to redesign conventional diplomacy to enable an ongoing dialogue between nation- states and the tech industry. Hence the Tech Ambassador was relocated to Silicon Valley, the Mecca of the tech industry. Tech diplomacy is in itself a new word. Diplomacy is usually economical and political. In the current context, it must be accepted that technology will drive diplomacy. This is ultimately a formal recognition by a sovereign state of new, powerful and influential non-state actors in the international arena to chart the trajectory of future technology with an eye on the nation’s foreign policy goals. Today, more than 50 countries have followed Denmark’s footsteps by nominating their Tech Ambassadors, with many stationed in Silicon Valley. However, a word of caution, tech diplomacy cannot be the exclusive preserve of the government or Big Tech. By its very nature, technology is a multi-stakeholder environment, and the stage must be shared with the business community, civil society, academia and media. More importantly, global geopolitics transcends the cyber domain and concerns of human rights and democratic values, thus making any transaction with the tech industry complex.

Ambassador Eugenio V Garcia, the Brazilian Tech Diplomat to Silicon Valley, defines Tech Diplomacy as “the conduct and practice of international relations, dialogue, and negotiations on global digital policy and emerging technological issues among states, the private sector, civil society, and other groups”.


For the first time in modern history, we are at the brink of a new Industrial Revolution. The first Industrial Revolution started in Britain through the steam engine, creating the textile industry that spread worldwide. It also ushered its own human rights issues with small children employed on the spinning jenny. So, while a transformative technology was created, it had a huge negative side effect on child labour. The Second Industrial Revolution gave us the internal combustion engine. Parallel to this development was the evolution of the electrical engine, but the internal combustion engine ended up dominating the automobile industry. With over two billion internal combustion engines in circulation, carbon emissions threaten our existence. The latter half of the 20th century saw the Digital Revolution (also called the Third Industrial Revolution), which shifted from mechanical and analogue electronic technology to digital electronics. Now we are witnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR, or Industry 4.0) that has led to rapid changes in technology, industry and societal patterns on the back of global interconnectivity and smart automation. Defining the complexities of 4IR, Mrs Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen, the Technology Ambassador of Denmark, says, “We have the opportunity to think about not individual technologies but what happens when there are billions of them around the world, the systemic impact of changing mobilisation around the world. It’s about winning the information wars, and that’s not in traditional printed newspapers.” “AI in the quantum race is much more than just being the first to develop little magic, ten thousand qubits of a quantum computer. It’s about Mastery. How will we use that technology in the future, and how will it benefit Humanity? What values will be built into the machine, the standards we are setting, whether it’s on artificial intelligence or telecommunications.” Ukraine has shown graphically how cyber-attacks have real human ramifications- whether it is closing a hospital that costs lives or shutting off power to the internet, which today has substituted such a critical part of our infrastructure. Explains Ambassador Larsen, “In this new and changing environment, technology is as much a part of our national security as much a part of our foreign policy. What are our lives going to look like? What is our National Security architecture in the global picture around these New Frontiers that include space, quantum, and inspiring technologies? We are in an age where we are embedding technologies into our bodies through neurotechnology. Limits between what used to be human and what used to be technology are blurring, and the same goes for our politics and foreign policies.”


The first pillar for ensuring an ethical concern in the development and use of technology is ‘responsibility’. Tech companies must live up to societal responsibilities in developing business models that not only serve the company’s purpose but also what society gets out of the technology. The second pillar is around democracy. How do we ensure that some of the fundamental values that we hold dear are the ones that are designed not only for technology that we use in Denmark or Europe but globally? The third pillar is around security-cyber security and national security. Tech companies do not see themselves as geopolitical actors; they deal with anyone and everyone to sell their products purely from the business point of view. This is changing as major powers like the U.S. realise the leverage that technology provides to rival powers aspiring to great power status. This will impact export controls and even Foreign Direct Investments.


The tech industry has its own set of complaints and needs a middle ground to negotiate its position with sovereign states. In their view, national regulatory bodies are stifling emerging technologies, negatively impacting innovation and the release of technology for critical ‘public good.’ In the cyber world, the sovereign boundaries tend to blur; while the nation-states continue to control the physical territory and the digital assets located therein, the big tech can access the markets and influence events across geographical boundaries remotely. So, who is going to mediate? This is where Tech Diplomacy comes in, adjusting conventional diplomacy to the needs of the 21st century. It seeks to mobilise tech companies, governments, and civil society to collaborate in tackling the challenges that inhibit emerging technologies from being scaled to the needs of the society, responsibly. This collaboration can no longer be delayed or ignored indefinitely. Technology is here to stay; it is changing the lives of the citizens and, on a broader scale, transforming labour markets, small and medium enterprises, and the entire government services. There is a realisation that there is a huge gap in the relationship between the governments and citizens on one side and the big tech on the other. Both sides are operating in a vacuum without the right set of rules. Tech Diplomacy can close this gap, with the immediate challenges being content moderation, anti-trust and competition, data security, privacy and cyber security. The tech industry must be incentivised to create solutions to all these challenges to protect and promote citizens’ rights, democracy, and fair and better competition.


Harnessing the tech world is not going to be easy; the pace of advancement is too fast to keep track of. Mr Tobby Simon, President and Founder, Synergia Foundation, ‘When we talk about technologies nowadays, we are alluding to Advanced Technologies, which could be in the GPT realm.’ These Advanced Technologies have dual purposes, so it is not easy to bracket them as a ‘dark power’ for the purpose of regulations which would be very broadbased. So, there is a huge security challenge where and how these technologies end up being used. The convergence of science and technology is a further complicated matter where knowledge-based technologies will create disruptions. The countries in the biggest danger from these technology- engineered disruptions will be democracies and swing states like Brazil, India and South Africa. Today, the ultimate aim of innovation remains the pecuniary gains accruing from the new invention. Since the biggest funders for cutting-edge technology remain in the West (except China), when innovations are found, the quest for finding the biggest buyer begins to recoup the investment many times over in the quickest time span possible irrespective of the cost of democratic ideals and practices! The Israeli software, Pegasus was sold to a wide swathe of nations, including India, with political leanings of all kinds, not out of any ideological fervour but purely for commercial gains. The damage it did, in over 50 nations, is difficult to assess. Therefore, while regulations have their place, the software/ hardware must come with a ‘kill switch’ to deactivate it remotely from any part of the world before it mutates and creates even greater damage. However, the inclination and will to implement such a ‘kill switch’ or ‘manual override’ must come from the global political leadership. In this area, too, it may be challenging to reach a consensus, as narrow political compulsions, in democracies and in dictatorships alike, when such spyware is of immense value in political contestations that are waged behind the scene.