Ten Takeaways from the “Digital Mediterranean”
The 14th edition of GMF’s Mediterranean Strategy Group, themed “The Digital Mediterranean,” was held in Turin December 5-7. It offered a rich pool of insights on the opportunities of the digital revolution for the Mediterranean, and the role of governments and key non-state players therein. The conversation presented as many questions as it did answers. But there were ten clear themes that policymakers, private sector entrepreneurs, and everyone in between should consider and work to address quickly as technology advances at a breakneck pace.
- The pitfalls of acceleration
Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are leading a transformation with a tremendous enabling power, but also many pitfalls. Laws, systems, economies, and perhaps most consequentially, mindsets lag behind a development that advances at a speed we can barely keep up with. As former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it, people talk to their governments using 21st century technology, while governments listen on 20th century technology and respond with 19th century policies. The digital age makes us borderless in positive and negative ways, but government systems are still oriented to being state-focused when their audience is not.
- The dilemma of cyberspace governance
Cyberspace, which remains regulated largely on a national basis, needs some form of supra-national governance. But who sets the rules? While governments fail to agree on a common rulebook, unaccountable private corporations impose their rules on global communication structures. Increasing calls to adopt an ‘Internet Magna Carta’ led the Italian Parliament in 2014 to propose a draft text for a bill of rights for the Internet, discussed at the December 2016 Internet Governance Forum. We will have to wait to see where that debate leads, but other governments should take note and follow suit.
- Tensions between transparency and privacy
Digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence; face recognition technologies; or cashfree, instant mobile payments increase the opportunities for governments and corporations to control citizens. They also offer opportunities to enhance security: Facebook and Google announced plans to filter ‘terrorist notions’ in their networks. But should it be up to Zuckerberg and company to decide on truth in a post-truth era? In the digital tomorrow, a bartender will not sell you a whisky because face recognition will tell him your health record. The search for a healthy balance between transparency and freedom is the central dilemma of the digital age.
- ICTs are no guarantor for political participation and pluralism
The beneficial impact of digital technology on participatory politics and governance has been widely discussed since the 2011 Arab uprisings. Information Technology is a geopolitical disruptor which will continue to facilitate social disruptions though street level politics. ITCs, however, are increasingly used by governments to curtail freedoms. In Turkey, since the Gezi Park protests, the government has been partially closing down social media, and using trolling and propaganda on these platforms, in an attempt to suffocate political dissent. In 2014, new legislation allowed the Turkish government to control citizens’ internet access, and to suspend it in the event of war or crisis. In the aftermath of the summer 2015 crisis, the government blacked out internet in 11 cities in the Kurdish North for a week, as well as WhatsApp. A psychological warfare between the government and its citizens is being facilitated by ICTs. Moreover, the positive democratic benefits of ICTs cannot unfold to the degree regimes start to blackout the internet entirely.
- Empowering extremism
While the rise of digital technology is largely perceived positively in economic and political terms, it poses important challenges when it comes to its impact on security, both in terms of cybersecurity and in the way ICTs empower violent extremism. The Islamic State, which has had a social media arm right from its inception, as well as a small cell of hackers, uses social media in more sophisticated ways than previous jihadist groups to remotely mobilize and direct attacks, including on Western countries. The digital dimension therefore makes the terrorism challenge governments face even more hybrid. National security agencies collect most information on cyberattacks but usually do not share this information with the public. Once again, the main challenge for cybersecurity is its political dimension, the balance between security and individual rights.
- Mechanization of information warfare
The current moment is a threshold comparable with the mechanization of warfare in World Wars I+II: governments were aware of the risks and saw them unfold, but did not contain them. For Southern Mediterranean governments this is dangerous because most countries in the region lack any serious cyber defense capabilities, making it much easier than in the past to destabilize these governments and societies from the outside. Information sharing among governments is limited by lack of trust. However, cooperation across the Mediterranean has led to a number of important successes, such as preventing terrorist attacks in Brussels that were adverted to the Belgian authorities by the Moroccan King.
- Mediterranean entrepreneurship thriving, but pace too slow
Debates on the economic dimension of digital technology focused largely on entrepreneurship and how governments can help create an enabling environment for innovation. Albeit small in absolute numbers, the sense of entrepreneurship in the region is boosting: the annual entrepreneurship forum RiseUp in Egypt went from an audience of 10 in 2013 to 7000 in 2014, and in 2015, 28 countries were represented. The Mediterranean region needs to step up education and freedom to use the available technologies to greatest economic benefit, including through the right ecosystem of beneficial laws. The main promise for digital technologies to boost economic development does not lie in producing technologies, but to rewire the whole system of production, including the development of new economic indicators (the 2016 Arab Human Development Report provides the usual gloomy picture but ignores the vibrant micro-level). In addition, many barriers are sustained by traditional industries with vested interests try to prevent IT entrepreneurship from disrupting their established profits.
- Apps and services as opportunity for the Mediterranean
Most of the jobs in the world are created not in industrial production but in the service sector. In order to maximize job creation through digital technology, an ecosystem of services must be embedded in every physical product. While advanced economies such as Germany and Switzerland are doing well in this regard, most Mediterranean countries lag behind and instead focus on domestic production and manufacturing. A positive counter example is how Morocco is embedded in the production of Zara clothes through services. What are the Southern Mediterranean’s assets? For example, the Arab world is home to 26 percent of global mobile phone usage, which highlights a great potential for mobile apps. The most interesting potential here is how digital technology can be used not to supplant but to manage and optimize traditional production (e.g. enhancing Quinoa crops in Morocco).
- Creating local value
The case of Uber illustrates how digital technologies need to improve ways of localizing value, and become more balanced socially. Uber has killed thousands of taxi jobs, but is said to potentially create more additional jobs for people who would otherwise not have been able to work in this field. At the same time, Uber takes 35 percent of tax for a ride in Paris that goes back to the United States. In addition, the large pool of drivers reduces net gains for the individual, while the corporation’s gains continue to flourish from commissions.
- Governments: Enable and back off
Governments should not seek to try and direct the societal change triggered by the digital revolution, but to help societies navigate through this change, reduce fears, and offer orientation. The digital revolution is driven by non-state actors, enhancing the importance of public-private partnerships. Governments should refrain from over-regulating, improve infrastructure, and otherwise focus on creating an enabling environment. A notable success story, an ‘Uber’ for tractors in Nigeria, was almost undermined by the government’s urge to tax and regulate. Governments’ precautious reservations against digital technology risks suffocating the opportunities this revolution presents.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.