Digital Geopolitics, part II

The Digital Revolution is still ongoing, but the chapter changed with the arrival of the internet in the 90’s. The internet has opened doors to a new reality, the world got smaller and more complex. It allowed us to be even more connected, trade became easier, and now, in hard pandemic times, it keeps society working, and it’s impossible to think of what could be happening if this technology weren’t so readily available. The internet has undoubtedly brought about very significant innovations, of which the creation of social media stands out. According to Our World in Data, in 2016 there were 3.5 billion internet users, and in 2018, Facebook had 2.3 billion users, that is, social media became a desirable place to share information. This is when a new chapter began.

The Arab Spring, in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, was a series of demonstrations built on social media. The movement #metoo, against the sexual harassment of women inside Hollywood, had a reach of 19 million views on Twitter, and more recently the Free Hong Kong movement took thousands of people to the streets to fight for democracy in Hong Kong, awakened by the introduction of a new Chinese national security law. Social media became a political demonstration platform. Speaking of China, it’s perhaps the example that comes to mind when we speak about using technology by a State to guide its domestic and foreign policy. The use of surveillance camera networks and blocking of several websites, especially western social media, which are used to block the population from accessing information not controlled by the Chinese government, although several government staff members and media have access to these same social media, allowing them to spread propaganda to the western world, are two ways China uses technology.

The new tech chapter begins with 5G, the basis for the creation if the internet of things. Already in progress, the internet of things will connect practically every device, such as smart homes, cars, toasters (literally) and even future devices. The futuristic world that most of us had imagined, with smart cities and self-driving cars, new robots, artificial intelligence which will blur the boundaries between the physical and digital world, 5G plays a fundamental role in unlocking all this potential. Low latency and the increase of the processing power will increase event more the development of AI and machine learning, changing the context of future digital geopolitics. Ideally, technology should be used to increase the quality of everyone’s life, but technology had always other applications and security is one of the concerns of 5G. The usage of drones isn’t new, but adding 5G, artificial intelligence and drones, we can see war becoming viable again, leaving diplomacy behind. With more devices connected, it is expected that hacking will also increase, which raises event more questions about security and prevention given the number of areas that can be affected by these attacks. Although the attacks are mostly carried out by criminal organizations, what complicates the political landscape is that many are state-sponsored attacks, by China and Russia, raising questions about national security.

The USA have been the main drivers of digital innovation, maintaining the hegemony of access to information and social media, at least in the West. Of the top 10 most valuable companies of the world, 6 are tech companies, and 5 of them are North American, such as Alphabet (Google) or Facebook. I would go so far as to say that the US is falling behind in technology, and the economic and security evidence are sufficient to understand the dimension of 5G when its implementation is more widespread. According to William Barr, the United States Attorney General, about 40% of the global 5G infrastructure is dominated by Huawai and ZTE, both Chinese companies targeted by the Federal Communications Commission. The trade war that started in 2018, between the USA and China, has become a technological and geostrategic confrontation in terms of 5G infrastructure.

Each revolution brough political changes and 5G is no exception. Networks are “the new geography” of our time and the control of infrastructures will determine who controls the internet of things and all its capacity. It is too early to declare a winner, first because we are still in the beginning, but also because there are too many variables that influence the political domain and international relations. For now, we can only wait and see to where technology will take us.

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