The job of an ambassador has changed a lot over the centuries, perhaps first with the advent of the telegraph in the 19th century, which dramatically diminished the authority of an overseas ambassador. But at its heart, the core purpose of the job has been the same: to act as a state representative to a specific nation or international organization abroad.
However, in an increasingly interconnected world, that purpose could soon change. Denmark recently announced that it would be creating a new diplomatic posting — a “digital ambassador” — to deal not with states and international organizations, but with giant technology companies like Facebook and Google. According to the Danish Foreign Ministry, it is the first such position in the world.
Given the enormous size of these companies, it's not hard to see why Denmark views its relationship with them as important: In 2015, the revenue of U.S. technology companies totaled $215.6 billion, considerably higher than the gross domestic product of Portugal or Greece for that year. (Notably, the former chief executive of a similarly huge American company was just named the United States' top diplomat).
Of course, huge companies have existed for decades, but the international clout of technology companies may be bigger than revenue alone suggests. The Internet has permeated the culture of almost every state on earth and it often has little regard for national policy.
WorldViews spoke with Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen by phone Thursday to get more details about how the new position, which is still being filled, might work.
WorldViews: You've been in the foreign minister position for a little while now [Samuelsen was selected to lead the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in November]. What is it that you saw over the past few months that made you think Denmark needed someone in an ambassador position to deal with relations with big tech companies?
Samuelsen: Well, just as we engage in a diplomatic dialogue with countries, we also need to establish and prioritize comprehensive relations with tech actors, such as Google, Facebook, Apple and so on. The idea is, we see a lot of companies and new technologies that will in many ways involve and be part of everyday life of citizens in Denmark. And some [of these companies] also have a size that is comparable to nations.
So, if we want to be part of what is going on, and we want to have our say in this story, then we need to have, I think, a tech ambassador.
WV: I know there's a lot of details still to work out, but would you be able to say roughly how you see this position working?
Samuelsen: Well we don't have the details on everything right now.
For sure, this tech ambassador will have a tight connection to the rest of our system. They will work with the embassies all around the world and use the staff all around the world also. This tech ambassador will not in any way be alone, they will have a big system behind their back that will work together with them. And they will make sure that we have a good relation with these companies.
I think that this is going to be a huge success for Denmark, and I think that you will see a lot of countries that will copy this idea.
WV: There's often a perception that these nonstate ambassador roles are a bit more symbolic than practical. Do you see this in those terms?
Samuelsen: It's definitely not going to be symbolic. The fact is that artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, the Internet of things, driverless cars and all these things that these companies are working with and that the world has to deal with, are part of our daily life in Denmark.
Instead of just leaning back and looking only at the world as it was yesterday, we have to think of the world as it will become tomorrow — and perhaps as it is already today.
WV: Have there been any recent events where you thought: Okay, this is a situation where it'd be great for a Danish digital ambassador to step in and play a significant role?
Samuelsen: So you probably know, we recently announced deals with both with Apple and Facebook in the last year. These were quite expansive deals; they decided to go to Denmark to establish part of their business here. [Note: both American tech companies recently announced plans to build large data centers in Denmark.] This is just one part of the new situation we're having to deal with.
The other part of that is the fact there has been [a rise in the creation] of data. More than half of the world's data has been created in the past two years. That's not just states or intelligence services who have put all this together. No, its mainly companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and so-on. That, again, puts us in a situation where we have to ask big questions about individual's privacy and the situation for states.
We have a situation where we have to deal with “fake news,” we have to deal with informations wars with Russia and so on. A lot of things that have bigger connections with, for example, Google, Facebook and Apple and so on. That's just part of our lives today, and it will be even more tomorrow.
WV: More generally, has the digital age meant all ambassadors around the world have had to rethink their duties and what their job really means?
Samuelsen: I think so. Things are happening so quickly. If you just take Apple as an example, it has a higher value than all Italian companies on the Italian stock market today. That's just one example of what an explosive world we're facing — explosive in the sense that things are happening really quickly. We as states, as foreign ministries, we have to deal with that fact.
This is just the beginning.
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