Morality and Law
The Digital Environment as a Global Commons

One of the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic was a sharp increase of the digital environment’s importance in social and political activities. Distance work and training, remote services, and electronic communication were relied upon instead of personal contact amid lockdown conditions — all this has become, if not a new norm of life, then certainly commonplace, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

As a result, the epidemic paradoxically contributed to a qualitative increase in the digitalisation of public relations. In the context of the postmodern XXI century, one can see the extremely few positive consequences of the coronavirus. The scrapping of old pre-digital “analogue” habits and behavioural patterns, which under normal conditions would have taken years, if not decades, happened extremely quickly and generally quite effectively under the threat of a pandemic. To some extent, the coronavirus has become a trigger for the total digitalisation of our life.

This change was reflected at the level of global political decision-making. The call for a new “Great Reset” strategy, which has become popular over the past year, in addition to green technologies and a number of other things, places its main emphasis precisely on a qualitatively different total digitalisation of public relations. It connects with this the main hopes for the future development of mankind. It is significant that this topic became one of the main issues at the recent virtual Davos forum at the end of January 2021, and it is actively discussed on other international platforms.
Digital Economy Development
Progress in digital technology has created tremendous wealth concentrated in a small group of individuals, companies and countries.

But at the same time, this acceleration of digitalisation has also highlighted the serious problems and challenges that global society will now have to face. One of the negative aspects is the generational digital divide — older people, for the most part, were affected by the previous stage of digitalisation to a lesser extent and were psychologically unprepared for total ‘immersion’, finding themselves in a much more vulnerable position than younger age groups. The general digital divide between the rich and the poor has become more sharply pronounced, both at the level of individual countries and at the domestic level in those countries where there is a tangible income difference and consumption style between the “advanced” capitals and other large cities, on the one hand, and the rest of the territory on the other. In these cases, attempts to introduce distance learning in schools were limited by the fact that neither the students nor the teachers had the necessary gadgets and technical means. The latter is even more important as low salaries for school teachers in a number of countries have become a tangible barrier to the transition to distance education.

Thus, social gaps within society have led to the fact that within the framework of digital education at the mass school level (rather than that of the elites), there are simply no students to teach. This is due to the fact that the economic situation of teachers does not allow them to provide the required access to the technical means of distance education.

In addition to these social problems, the trend towards total digitalisation, which is quite clearly outlined now, has given rise to new fears that this “total figure” will completely destroy those human rights that were achieved at the previous stages of the development of society. These include, first of all, the right to privacy, privacy of correspondence, the right to freedom of speech and expression, and many others. According to this logic, total digitalisation means not only and not so much comprehensive access to remote services, but total control over the activities of both an individual and society as a whole.
As a result, in the year of the pandemic, the politically incorrect expression “digital concentration camp” has become quite common, with the help of which the future of mankind was outlined in the darkest overtones.

And this public mood is very indicative. Additionally, there have been more and more widespread analogies to the technological dystopia portrayed in ‘The Matrix’.

Another aspect of these concerns is related to the problem of personal data security in the context of total digitalisation. Their constant leaks from seemingly reliable protected servers have become almost a daily routine, to which we have already become accustomed. We don’t even take this problem seriously, until this leak of information affects us personally. Whatever the reasons are for personal data leaks, whether it’s technological hacking by hackers or the human corruption factor that provides access to classified information, in any case, total digitalisation clearly shows that it will be accompanied by an equally total threat of leaks and the disclosure of personal data and other private information.

The next important point is related to the politicisation of the total digital environment. The blocking of Donald Trump’s accounts, first on Twitter, and then on other social networks, exposed this problem extremely sharply. It directly raised the issue of global digital censorship. And this censorship will be carried out not even by states (one way or another authorised to use violence, including digital violence), but by private corporations, and this will be a cross-border phenomenon.

This, in turn, has highlighted the urgency of the problem of “digital sovereignty”. After all, if total digitalisation becomes not just a norm of life, but a key basis for the functioning of a global society, and its regulator is not states, but private corporations that provide quasi-monopolistic technological platforms for peoples’ electronic activity, then we’re led to ask why the states are even needed. Perhaps the system of global governance institutions could change accordingly, for example, so that representatives of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others would sit in the UN Security Council as permanent members. We agree that this approach is extremely revolutionary in its transformational impact on international relationships. And if a year ago all this looked like just another utopia (or dystopia, it does not matter), now the question arises, why not? After all, the whole logic of total global digitalisation raises the question of ensuring that its providers receive their political representation both at the global and national levels.
If the digitalised world simply cannot exist without them, this means that they must rule this world.

Attempts by states to counteract this in the struggle to preserve their digital sovereignty can take different forms. The most obvious of these is the Chinese experience of creating their own social media platforms under sovereign control and blocking access on their territory to universal (American) platforms. Whether other countries follow China’s example remains to be seen.

In any case, the total digitalisation that has accelerated sharply with the pandemic raises the question of what it means for society and individuals. In the logic of the now popular concept of the Global Commons, the digital environment is perceived as one of the key elements of this system of public domain (along with ecology, human rights, universally shared values, etc.). But then, it is obvious that global society must be sure that this digital environment will not serve as a source of threats for it itself associated with total control, censorship and the risk of data leakage. So far, there is no such confidence.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.