Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Digital Battlefield

The Atlantic had an article this month which described Tunisia's image as an emerging Silicon Valley of North Africa.  David Rohde had assumed, like I had when I started researching this topic for a paper I gave in February, that the post-revolutionary rebuilding would follow post-colonial partnerships.  I was trying to find out what the tech sector would look like in North Africa and the Middle East when it began rebuilding with the hypothesis that controlling the tech in the region was the new battlefield, a focus of US foreign policy.

The Digital Battlefield: Controlling the Technology of Revolution

The dramatic changes across the MENA region have been linked to a similarly dramatic rise in the use of information and communication technology ICT.  Europe is quickly seeking to determine its role in relation to major actors in these movements by encouraging participatory democracy and building partnerships which bring stability for the populations and enterprises of the area.  Technology is increasingly used as a tool in defining and implementing strategies aimed at achieving these goals.  While the traditional battlefields remain in upheaval, maneuvers on the digital terrain do not progress in parallel.  This paper will examine the foreign policy implications of the pervasive cultural bias of the ICTs connected to revolution and stabilization efforts describing how this bias shifts power away from the populations using the technology and toward the actors in control of the programs and codes focusing on specific examples from EU actors in the MENA region.  The ICTs being deployed for the purposes of conflict management and democratization are plagued by cultural bias which disenfranchises users.  It diminishes the technology’s potential for use in participatory actions by removing authorship and contributes to information gatekeeping by the creators of the technology which tend to be European or American.  It is through this gatekeeping, this controlling of information and communication data, that European and American actors seek to determine the boundaries of the next battlefield.  By applying a neo-colonial strategy to information gathering, these actors are not simply positioning themselves on the field to the best advantage, they are determining the shape of the field by commanding the programs and codes through which the information flows.  

While I assumed the US would have a significant presence, I was looking for the EU to play a major role resuming former ties to build infrastructure, telecoms, and provide technical expertise.  Several of these countries would want to reject old state owned telecoms and internet plus expand to meet a surging demand for these services.  (Between Jan 2011 and Jan 2012 mobile web browsing increased by more than 3X in Africa... bigger increase than in Asia which includes China!)  However, what I found surprised me.  Just like Rohde found, tech development has been almost entirely American.  What he didn't explain was why the deviation from the previous and expected pattern.  Why was there a vaccum, a moment of potential for tech development that European partners didn't meet?

My research has led me to hypothesize three things:
1) Policies of Interoperability: The presence of NATO, a fan of interoperability for secure, real-time communications makes a good case for cohesive software.  Once this standard was set, other on-the-ground programs spread American tech in the region and tipped the balance toward operating under this framework.  This was a blow for European style policies toward intellectual property and an expansion of US style systems and regulations.  (see earlier post for policy moves by US to encourage EU to adopt certain measures)

2)Responsiveness: The US gov had the capital for aid and American businesses saw opportunities to investment whereas the EU could not react in time.  The EU budget is determined years in advance.  The 'stability instruments' at its disposal which could be applied are not set-up for crisis-response and are poorly funded.  European business investment continued along previous lines, some projects were in place, they were stalled briefly and then continued such as solar energy or trade.  But the tech sector was new, it was wide open, and the potential was seized upon by the US rather than the EU.

3) Supply and Demand: Countries in the region were in a moment of redefining themselves and chose to include American style tech as a facet of this image.  In some places like Libya, there were reports of English replacing Italian as the foreign language of choice.  The US was already on the ground and more agile with aid/investment to provide the tech while the EU was focused on domestic recovery.

What does it mean for US foreign policy to install US tech?  How is this a battlefield maneuver?  I'll put it another way, how would it affect US intelligence gathering or US security if the region chose another tech... if they bought Chinese? or if they stagnated, didn't begin contributing heaps of data for marketing research or intelligence gathering?  If they remained silent or connected to the internet in a less accessible manner, this would be disadvantageous to US interests.

US: Delighted to support the Silicon Valley of North Africa.

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