Inside the Digital Society: Digital geopolitics

What is this cyberspace?

There are those who think that ‘cyberspace’ is somewhere different from the physical world in which we live.  

Some have looked at that idea with pleasure, seeing opportunities to live outside the rules. Others have looked at it with trepidation, fearing a world in which there’d be no rules.

The truth is, though, that cyberspace is earthbound. It depends on physical infrastructure (even when it’s wireless), on bits of kit made in earthbound factories, transmitting data between earthbound individuals in earthbound buildings. The very ‘cloud’ we talk of’s data centres: massive buildings filled with rank on rank of earthbound objects.

And what do we think the internet's about, in any case? It is technology or is it people? Is it data moving through the ether (between bits of kit and data centres) or is it those who generate and use the data?

Up in the air or down to earth?

There are those, too, who, who have seen ‘cyberspace’ as an escape from earthbound politics, particularly geopolitics.  

The internet is global, they say: data aren’t bound by national boundaries in the same way as goods or folks. And so the internet and data can transcend the politics in nation-states, and the geopolitics between them.

Well, no, in practice not. The global character of the Internet (or digitalisation) is only partial. Technology's not independent of location, or of power structures. It doesn’t transcend the politics and geopolitics we know; it interacts with them, and adds some new complexities.

It’s not alone in doing so, of course. The internet’s sometimes described as a global public good, but so’s environmental sustainability, so’s the climate, so are the oceans, so’s the international financial system.

National politics …

We see those interactions between the digital and physical all round us, both nationally and internationally.

Digitalisation hasn’t fundamentally changed relations between governments and citizens, at least so far. Rather, it’s added new dimensions to them – changes in public services, which are often to the good; increased surveillance, not so.

We still live in nation-states and will continue doing so. We live by rules that are determined by governments, not cybernauts: governments that we’ve elected, if we’re lucky, or had imposed on us, if not.

If anything, to date, politics during what we might call the digital age's adolescence has seen increased attachment to those nation-states rather than rejection of them. Nationalism today’s more fashionable around the world than internationalism. Populist politicians have been elected in many different countries during the last decade, often over internationalists. My own country (Britain) voted to leave a successful international partnership, not join one.

And digital divides have added new layers to existing disparities in countries: between men and women, rich and poor, urban and rural, old and young; between nations with a great deal of geopolitical power and those with less.

Nation-states are changing, sure, and digitalisation is contributing to that change, but withering away they’re not.

… and international politics

We see those interactions too in international politics. I’ve spent much of the last 25 years watching them play out in different international fora.  

Take the World Summit on the Information Society, for example. Often seen today as a milestone in progress towards a new digital world. At the time, a power struggle between different visions of how that digital world ought to be governed – and one that still continues, though with changing players.

There’s been much talk of multistakeholder models since then in digital governance, but the power structures of intergovernmental politics remain fundamentally important in determining the nature of the digital society.  

Digital power conveys diplomatic and geopolitical power. It resides and interacts with economic power. In future, it’s likely to reside and interact more, too, with military power. The internet is not a replacement for geopolitics, but digitalisation is increasingly a part of geopolitics.

Where does the power lie?

The economic power that’s generated by digitalisation is highly (and, of late, increasingly) concentrated.  

As UNCTAD's pointed out, China and the United States, have more than 75% of the world market for public cloud computing, and 75% of blockchain patents. China's the world leaders in 5G, the US in semiconductors.

Those two countries account for 90% of market capitalisation of the world’s top 70 platforms, leaving 4% for Europe and 1% for Africa and Latin America combined. Seven platforms – five American and two Chinese – account for two thirds of that market value.

Developing countries and their businesses face great difficulties in building spaces for autonomy within this digital power divide. Even the European Union finds itself dependent on foreign technologies: hence all the angst about reliance on Chinese technology and lax data protection by Big Tech brands from Silicon Valley.

Geopolitics are changing

Geopolitics are changing, as they always do. Digitalisation is feeding into that, but the digital future is also going to be affected by it. I’ll mention seven themes.

First: these are more dangerous times in geopolitics than we’ve known in a while. There’s a tussle underway between today’s great powers for global influence, political and economic. The last four years have harmed America’s prestige. They’ve seen accelerated Chinese reach. Tussles at the top of global geopolitics are inherently destabilising.

Second: this is also a tussle between visions of digital power, between established (US) and growing (Chinese) digital behemoths, with different strengths in different parts of digitalisation, competing platforms, and divergent visions, based on different kinds of market and different roles for government.

Third: few other countries have major irons in this fire. The European Union’s important and can play a part in setting global standards, as it’s done with data privacy. It’s way behind in many areas of tech, but has important parts to play in others. India, Russia, a few other countries have strengths in depth in certain areas, but not the breadth of China or America. The majority of countries are left to look for niches in which they can seek prosperity or influence.

Fourth: commercial businesses are also major players in this geopolitics, especially the biggest global platforms and data corporations. Their clout’s much bigger than the large majority of countries. As Facebook has just demonstrated, they’re quite prepared to challenge powerful governments, so what about those that are less powerful?

Fifth: there are important issues here of national sovereignty. Economies of scope and scale enable global businesses to take dominant positions in national communications sectors far beyond their homelands, especially in developing countries with small digital sectors. This raises issues of dependence and what has been called ‘data colonialism’; echoes too of the arguments around a New World Information and Communication Order that racked UNESCO forty years ago.

Sixth: what scope is there in this for developing country participation? Twenty years ago I reported on developing countries’ lack of influence in international ICT policymaking institutions. How much has changed since then? Decision-making processes that will determine the future digital society – on standards, for example, or e-commerce – are still dominated by the global North. How far will they reflect the needs of countries in the global South?

Seventh: what role is there in this for the United Nations? Its Secretary-General has been promoting its potential role in digital cooperation. Powerful countries, though, are wary of multilateral approaches, seeing more advantage for themselves in bilateral agreements. What does that mean for international standardisation or for global power-broking?

In conclusion

A few thoughts there about the changing context for digital geopolitics. Which I will end with three pointers for digital policymakers. That they should recognise: 

  • that digitalisation does not transcend geopolitics, but is part of it;

  • that geopolitics is changing; 

  • and that geopolitics will determine the future of the digital society as much as does technology.

Image source: Russ Alison Loar via Flickr Commons 


David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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