GLOBAL POLICY BRIEF: A Digital Wake-Up Call Europe, Asia Can’t Ignore by Richard Werly

NOV 7 — Like their European counterparts, Asian governments are now discovering the extent of the digital surveillance put in place by America’s National Security Agency (NSA).

When they meet in New Delhi on November 11, European and Asian foreign ministers will not be able to ignore this digital wake-up call. So, for once, the annual Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) ministerial conference may make a difference — the ministers of 51 Asian and European countries would have a shared outrage to debate.

The subject of this diplomatic anger is, of course, the revelation by Edward Snowden of the United States’ extensive digital spying network. Last month, discussions at the European Union (EU) leaders’ summit were dominated by documents proving that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s electronic communications were intercepted. More recently, China and South-east Asian countries protested loudly after fresh revelations about Washington’s secret electronic data collection programme in this part of the world.

When they meet in New Delhi, ASEM foreign ministers will have a choice: Either remain officially silent on this common issue, to avoid reopening a delicate rift on privacy, security and citizens’ electronic rights between Asia and Europe; or face the music and admit the blunt reality.

It is that, in today’s digital world, in the shadow cast by American Internet giant corporations, the time has come to address, at bilateral and multilateral levels, the strategic question of Internet governance and data protection.

Asian data on US servers

Part of the preparatory work to such a crucial discussion has already been done. The subject of US data interceptions and the current impossibility for countries to protect their digital sovereignty dominated the Internet Governance Forum in Bali on October 21-25.

This coincidence is telling in itself: While European leaders in Brussels were feeling betrayed by the extent of the Obama administration’s spying apparatus, digital experts and stakeholders from around the globe were gathered on the Indonesian resort island to exchange ideas on how to achieve the best balance between digital freedom, digital sovereignty and cyber-security. What came up, out of dozens of panels in Bali, was that Asia and Europe are now bumping into the same digital wall.

With immense quantities of Asian data being stored on US servers and with hundreds of millions of Asian consumers hooked on Google, Apple, Yahoo! or Microsoft, the East is equally threatened by the American digital empire. Most Asian dragons and tigers have no means of protecting the digital assets of their citizens and institutions.

Data is not only a public and an individual asset to be protected; it is the oil of digital business and the key to future profitability for thousands of companies and start-ups all over the East. No single country can be left to control it alone.

Cultural differences

If the ASEM meeting finds the courage to address this issue, cultural differences will certainly surface.

In Asia, the interests of the community are often placed above those of the individual, and Asian states are still reluctant to modify their internal security Acts. In addition, some countries may not want to reopen this freedom-versus-security debate, especially with the war on terrorism and extremism still on-going in South-east Asia.

Another difference is that Europeans and Asians have diverging commercial interests in this digital economy. In Asia, American Internet giants are either welcomed or kept at bay with openly protectionist legislation. The issue in this part of the world is not to replace or to emasculate Silicon Valley’s offspring, but to protect the huge regional digital market and, eventually, to make lucrative commercial trans-pacific deals with the US mastodons. With thriving digital economies, countries like Singapore and South Korea are positioning themselves as competitive and safe destinations for data storage.

Soon after the ASEM ministerial conference in New Delhi, the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Telecom World conference will be held on November 20-23 in Bangkok. Thousands of experts and key players in the digital world and regulating bodies (from governments to United Nations organisations) will again debate this global digital deadlock, even if very few stakeholders are in favour of seeing the ITU play a bigger role.

As the NSA saga continues, ASEM countries have an opportunity to make their voices heard. For a forum too often in search of a meaning, the choice to remain silent would send a very wrong signal to digital enterprises and citizens in Asia and Europe.