Student and alumni views
10.03.17

Denmark’s digital ambassador – A new strategy or a dangerous precedent?

Hertie School student Angela-Gabrielle Palmer raises questions on spheres of public and private influence.

This article was originally published by our student magazine, The Governance Post.

Without a doubt, some of the most recognisable businesses operating in the world today are tech-based enterprises. You would be hard-pressed to find a single person who has not heard of companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google or Facebook, and the influence that they now wield both in business and politics is unparalleled. In light of this, the Danish government recently decided that the importance of these companies was so great that it warranted the appointment of an ambassador to manage the state’s relationships with these firms. Denmark’s digital ambassador will liaise with some of the world’s top tech companies, making it the first government position of its kind anywhere in the world today.

In a recent interview with the Danish newspaper Politiken, the Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen pointed out that these firms “affect Denmark just as much as other nations do. It’s a new reality.” Companies such as Apple and Google are now so large that if they were actually states, they would narrowly miss being included in the G20. The profit these companies generate is close to that of the 20 largest economies in the world. The most striking statement Samuelsen made during this interview was that “these companies have become a type of new nations and we need to confront that.”

As a nation, Denmark maintains a fairly strong relationship with the major tech companies. Facebook has recently announced its plans to build a new data centre in the Danish city of Odense, which will create around 150 permanent jobs for the local community. Apple entered into a similar agreement in 2015. On the back of these developments, the creation of the new ambassadorship constitutes a formalised process for negotiations on further investment in the Danish information technology sector. Additionally, it will provide another channel between Denmark and the United States based on a business relationship rather than one grounded in a more traditional diplomatic exchange. Given that many states are currently faced with the prospect of having increasingly tenuous relations with the US under the Trump administration, creating an alternative diplomatic channel could have its benefits.

While the appointment of a senior government official to manage negotiations with tech-based companies is not necessarily a new phenomenon, equating companies such as these in a similar way to that of nations should be a cause for concern. Much of the widespread opposition which has been directed at multilateral trade agreements such as Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership in recent years has focused on the degree of power conferred on corporations to influence government decisions. Through mechanisms such as the Investment Court System (ICS), individual companies can sue states for alleged discriminatory practices or decisions against their financial interests, the provisions of which are now embedded in a number of bilateral and international trade treaties.

While it is impossible to ignore the importance of digitalisation in terms of the positive impact it has in our everyday lives, the creation of an explicit ambassadorship in this context can be seen to send a clear message: if you can accumulate enough wealth, you too can be afforded a unique political status akin to that of a nation state. As University of Copenhagen Professor Martin Marcussen recently said in an interview with NPR, “When you ask an ambassador to communicate with transnational companies, you make the implicit claim that these companies have the same status as sovereign states. That in itself could be questionable in normative terms and practical terms … There are two different logics in the private sector and public sector.”

Can the logic of the private sector be transferred to the public sector? With the establishment of positions such as the Danish Digital Ambassador, we are on the cusp of finding out exactly how this may be done in practice. However, corporations are not states, and in treating these entities as such we are opening up the policymaking process to what could be considered undue influence. The degree of power and influence that the creation of such a position could inspire in some corporations can be seen to entail a degree of risk – could the interests of the state and its citizens become subordinate to corporate interests?

For the moment, these questions will continue to be open to speculation – much like the new Danish Digital Ambassadorship itself. The exact terms of the appointment, its responsibilities and the potential candidates for the position have yet to be confirmed by the Danish government. That said, the direction that digitalisation may be taking us creates a precedent that has the potential to alter the future of international diplomacy. Only time will tell whether or not the role of state will be reduced in the face of such a development, but we must remain open to such a possibility. Until then, the digital revolution will continue.

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