Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in the digital age
The core argument in this post is that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine should be extended/adapted to the digital space in the face of surveillance (tech) industrialism. Countries that have an intricate understanding of the privacy and security implications as well as the monetary value of the digital economy should share knowledge and tools with others countries to spread digital sovereignty.
The original inspiration for what follows came from three academic articles. The first about the limitations of knowledge transfer in Huawei's data centres in two African countries; the second about the R2P doctrine; and the third about electronic regimes.
First, data centres. Having conducted fieldwork in Kenya and Nigeria, the author from Johns Hopkins University found that Huawei led data and communication infrastructure upgrade offer no long term “technological or industrial upgrading” for the countries where they were installed. In the author's conclusion “this is due to domestic obstacles in the host countries” but also because of the lack of domestic know how.
The second article is about the Responsibility To Protect. It is an international relations/norms doctrine that stems from two issues. One, that the integrity of humans is the source of state sovereignty (and prosperity) and two, that the international community should not or cannot be passive in the face of grave violations thereof.
In critical technology stages (e.g. transmission vs storage vs processing..etc.) and sectors, there should be a collective international response to prevent lock in build up or surveillance industrialism and capitalism.
Despite the good intentions to prevent genocides and help in the face of natural catastrophes (e.g. France and the 2008 Myanmar cyclone), R2P has been criticised for being an interventionist tool – especially as it is in most times former colonial countries coming to the rescue of former colonies. Despite helping codify norms and actions that would prevent passivity in the face of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, R2P is still a debated concept.
The last formative article talks about electronic regimes. As a country undergoes digital transformation, the technology solutions that it chooses dictate its electronic regime. The Italian authors of this paper identify four such regimes that are categorised according to infrastructure independence and information independence.
- e-domains: control their network infrastructure but not data (information) production and protection (e.g. via cloud storage).
- e-provinces: exercise a high level of information independence but a low degree of control over infrastructure
- e-colonies: in the author's words are “losers in the world of digital revolution” because they “have completely lost their independence for economic, political, or cultural reasons”
- e-powers: control their own means for information production and transmission, thereby enjoying the highest degree of independence and influence in cyberspace
The situation with the data centres is just one example of – without using big isms from Lenin or Prebisch – resource (i.e. data) takeover and loss of the owner's control over it. Considering that knowledge transfer can be a pillar of economic transfer and the importance of data centres in the technology stack, this is worth paying attention to. It is also important to consider in light of Huawei's presence globally.
A 2020 analysis estimates that 70% of Africa's telecommunication infrastructure relies on Huawei. The situation looks similar in major parts of Latin America and South East Asia.
For example, 85% of Brazil's 4G networks were constructed by Huawei. Indonesia and the Philippines – two of the most South East Asia's highly populated countries – are also relying on Huawei for 5G infrastructure.
In Europe, Chinese telecommunications equipment (and recently headsets) has been hotly debated in the past few years. In fact, the debate here has not only revolved about data centres, storage and transmission but also about innovation, values and security and digital sovereignty is being invoked as a response to the fear of digital colonialism.
It is important to note that American companies and tools are equally proliferated and most countries rely on products from one of the two nations. Moreover, American companies and technology practices are also not conducive to other countries's growth.
There are other issues also that fit the profile of harmful or unequal tech distribution practices, besides lack of knowledge sharing and control over data transmission and storage via telecommunications equipment.
Shaping of public discourse via mis/dis-information and biometric and informational biases in new technologies are just some examples that touch end users. Unfair market practices and industrial data and security leaks are examples of how lack of control over one's data can be detrimental on other fronts as well.
In my view digital R2P should be based on sharing knowledge and tools to help other countries get as independent as possible along the e-regimes ladder outlined above. In critical technology stages (e.g. transmission vs storage vs processing..etc.) and sectors, there should be a collective international response to prevent lock in build up or surveillance industrialism and capitalism.
Relying on the Key Enabling Technologies framework of the EU as well as the innovation stimulus, market/investment correction and technology ethics principles guiding digital sovereignty can be a first step. There are however some shortcomings to this vision.
So far I see at least two shortcomings of digital R2P; confusion over the (normative) scope and presence/role of state actors.
First, the scope of the term. As with the term digital sovereignty – using digital and not cyber when it comes to R2P is a conscious choice to signify the importance of the whole digital stack, including hardware and software.
Being precise about the scope is important to devise and deploy the appropriate measures. An important step here is building awareness in the international community. However, awareness about one set of technologies comes immediately with suspicion about the alternatives and the parties that provide them.
Therefore the role of state actors and tech industrialism is the second shortcoming to consider here. The biggest Chinese companies have been accused of being close to/extension of the ruling regime and in the US early investments by the government gave rise to the dominant companies of today and the Snowden revelations confirmed the surveillance mechanisms between both parties.
A standing criticism for R2P is respect for local vs universal values, in other words what's seen as a problem in one country's domestic affairs might be acceptable to its people but not the international community. With technology, the pattern of its harms has been identified in most corners of the world with a mix of economic (both value creation and circumvention via tax avoidance), data protection, security or ethical disadvantages. Whether this is a stand alone criticism or a second order consequence of one of the above is to be seen and further theorised.
While this piece proposes Digital R2P to prevent passivity in the face of digital takeover and perpetuation of technological harm by nation states, I acknowledge that there is a lot of theoretical work needed to stabilize such a concept. If you also find the issues discussed above important please do get in touch.
Is this the right way to think about digital R2P and interstate tech industrialism?
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