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'Techplomacy': Meet the Danish diplomat leading Europe's efforts to influence Silicon Valley

'Techplomacy': Meet the Danish diplomat leading Europe's efforts to influence Silicon Valley

Anne Marie Engtoft Meldgaard, Denmark’s tech ambassador, believes that tech diplomacy is "more important than ever" in a divided world.

Her country was the first to send an ambassador to Silicon Valley with a focus on Big Tech in 2017, and last week, they outlined new priorities, including a focus on Europe's tech future.

Meldgaard spoke to Euronews Next about the importance of diplomacy in this area, saying she’s noticed "increasing tension" between the Global North and South.

"Technology will and should be part of the solution for mending that gap and it should be used not to hold anyone down, but to lift them up," Meldgaard told Euronews Next.

"I think in the new geopolitical reality that we find ourselves in, tech diplomacy is more important than ever," she added.

Growing importance of tech diplomacy

Jovan Kurbalija, director of the non-profit DiploFoundation and a former diplomat based in Geneva, said that the idea of "tech diplomacy" was discussed as early as 1994.

By 2003, the United Nations hosted the first World Summit on the Information Society meeting in Geneva, where their goal was to "bridge the global digital divide separating rich countries from poor countries".

In the 2010s, Kurbalija said there was an awareness that important decisions were increasingly being made by big multinational companies in the tech industry and that there was a need to better engage with the likes of Facebook and Microsoft.

That set the stage for 2017 when Denmark officially opened its tech embassy in San Francisco that would work directly with the major companies in the United States.

Now, seven years later, a 2023 study from Kurbalija’s think tank DiploFoundation discovered that there are 63 countries with a presence in Silicon Valley, including 24 countries of the 27 European Union member states.

Other major hotspots outside the US where tech diplomats are based are Beijing, Brussels, Geneva, Barcelona, and Bengaluru, India.

A distinctly political mandate

The idea behind Denmark’s ambassadorship is to keep up with the influence that multinational tech companies have because their power "match[es] or even surpasses that of our traditional partners, the nation states," the tech ambassador’s website reads.

Meldgaard’s mandate, like those before her, "focus[es] on the political aspects of new and emerging technologies".

"[Multinational companies] have influence over geopolitics and we need to have a constructive engagement with them," Meldgaard said.

"This is one effort we’re making to make sure the Western tech industry is on the right side of history," she added.

Aside from the traditional ambassadorial role, there are three other ways that tech diplomacy shows up overseas, according to Kurbalija.

The most common presence is for countries to have a dedicated department at a consulate in San Francisco that deals exclusively with tech issues. There are others, like Japan, who decide to focus exclusively on commercial representation through an external trade organisation with headquarters in Silicon Valley.

Denmark cannot negotiate AI rules with the tech companies, it is the responsibility of the European Union to do so.

The Swiss take an even different approach, Kurbalija said. They created Swissnex, an arm of the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation where experts can focus on academic and scientific exchanges.

However, Kurbalija said that individual states like Denmark with more political mandates are not able to set policy directions with Big Tech companies.

"Denmark cannot negotiate AI rules with the tech companies, it is the responsibility of the European Union to do so," Kurbalija said.

The one policy area where countries can make their own laws, Kurbalija continued, is on cybersecurity because it is listed as an exception in the Lisbon Treaty, the agreement that formed the constitutional basis of the EU.

Denmark's new roadmap

The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs created its first tech diplomacy strategy in 2021 that focused on three themes.

The diplomatic effort was to make sure major tech companies meet "their social responsibility," that they uphold democracy, and that technology supports the security of all Danish citizens.

What that looks like in practice, Meldgaard said, can be anything from creating initiatives like Tech For Diplomacy to better integrate technology into election processes, to collaborating on partnerships to end gender-based violence online or mitigating spyware with the US government.

Last week, the Danes redefined their tech diplomacy priorities until 2026 so their digital diplomacy reflects the changes that the world’s undergone in the last three years, Meldgaard said.

If we want to have a market that’s attractive so startups [do] not move to the US, we need to think more pan-European and when it comes to scaling

This time around, she said the focus will be on making Europe a "tech superpower," capable of competing with giant companies in the US and China.

While the EU has been pioneering regulation of the big media companies, Meldgaard said it's still the major tech companies overseas that "determine" the landscape for the whole continent.

"Europe is seen as 27 different markets and 27 different jurisdictions," she said.

"If we want to have a market that’s attractive so startups [do] not move to the US, we need to think more pan-European and when it comes to scaling".

Meldgaard, who splits her time between Copenhagen and the ambassadorial office in San Francisco, said she still will maintain relationships with the big US companies, even if the strategy refocuses on Europe.

Challenges ahead

Meldgaard and Kurbalija agree that there are many challenges for tech diplomats in 2024.

"Diplomacy has been overshadowed in recent years by military and confrontational logics," Kurbalija wrote in an analysis of the year ahead.

"Unfortunately, this trend is likely to continue in 2024, with no end to current conflicts in sight".

Throughout the year, diplomats will be grappling with how to curb divisions created by artificial intelligence, how to spur economic development for tech companies all over the world, and the impact of digital inventions on what some call the biggest worldwide election year in history, Kurbalija said. They are doing all of this in an increasingly intense global political landscape.

Geopolitics are not just brewing on the virtual battlefield, according to Kurbalija. There’s also what he calls a "digital decoupling" happening between the US and China over a few significant areas, like the creation of semiconductors, submarine cables, and AI.

The UN's Global Digital Compact, a set of shared principles to be negotiated in September, is supposed to dominate discussion in diplomatic circles this year, Kurbalija said.

The compact will become the "north star" for diplomats doing this work, Meldgaard added.

The document is supposed to "articulate a shared vision of an open, free, secure and human-centred digital future," according to the United Nations’ website.