The digital revolution has been around for decades, but the global digital economic order is still missing. The United States, China and the European Union have been developing their own models for years. Without more global coordination, the world could miss out on the most promising technological solutions to common problems.
Realigning the incentives that drive the digital economy will not be easy. However, recent policy development efforts reflect the need for new forms of governance. For example, the OECD is taking the lead in tackling the problem of international tax arbitrage — a tactic used by big U.S. tech companies. Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden has appointed industry critics to lead key agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, and he has directed regulators to investigate excessive platform power in digital markets.
Likewise, China introduced a new Personal Information Protection Law and launched a major domestic digital market antitrust campaign. The EU has laid out an overarching ethics-led vision for the governance of digital markets and artificial intelligence, building on its landmark General Data Protection Regulation. In addition, countries such as Spain and Germany are targeting data-grabbing business models.
Regulators and authorities around the world are considering how to redefine the AI and data agenda, nurture the next generation of digital players, and shape global standards to suit their respective visions. But if the primary goal of these jurisdictions is to control overpowering digital platforms, it may be possible to find common ground for a more effective global digital order.
Digital authorities in the EU and the US, of course, will not agree on all issues, but they do share a vision for a more open and collaborative digital order. If they are to effectively align behind this overall goal, they need to understand what their opponents are.
In the emerging "splinternet", information segregation is on the rise. People in different siloes have fundamentally different views on facts, and therefore what constitutes truth, and there is no agreement even on how to ensure and coordinate key functions of digital architecture. GPS is an example, each large jurisdiction has its own framework: China has BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, India has Regional Navigation Satellite System, Europe has Galileo System.
The digital order that emerges in the absence of global coordination raises two key questions. The first is at the digital level of major global challenges such as climate change and the pandemic, which exist independently of liberal or anti-liberal governments. Just as the effects of climate change will be felt disproportionately, so will the technology needed for climate adaptation and mitigation — or outbreak monitoring — be distributed unequally.
The second problem is the incompatibility between competing visions of the future digital economy. Many developing and emerging economies are still deciding how to expand and govern their digital capabilities so that new technologies serve their overarching strategies for sustained economic growth. If measures to improve access to technology do not take into account different local and national growth strategies, there is the potential to consolidate a suboptimal digital economic future, even if these measures enable progress in tackling other issues, such as climate change.
Jointly addressing these issues is directly related to the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Whether it's public health, education or climate change, the pursuit of global coherence should trump securing narrow geopolitical interests on any country's agenda. Of course, realists have to admit that in any multilateral negotiation on these issues, the current battle over data control, hardware design, and platform governance models will have a big impact.
Therefore, the three digital forces will come to the negotiating table with their eyes wide open. Building a more stable and consistent global digital order does not mean that the three models must be fully aligned. But failing to reflect on where and how the digital order is incompatible may lead to a situation where there is no competition for the first and no shame for the last. In the short term, it is important that there is some level of interoperability in the area of global challenges.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, all major powers and regions should recognize the importance of freely sharing certain data. Now, they must start looking for other things in common. A better new digital order is possible, but it won't fall from the sky.