A Tech Ambassador's perspective on safeguarding freedom, access, and media integrity | Internet fragmentation | DW | 05.12.2023
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A Tech Ambassador's perspective on safeguarding freedom, access, and media integrity

Explore Denmark's Tech Ambassador's take on the fractured internet, freedom of expression, tech responsibilities and media's role in our digital era.

 “We should put much more focus on safeguarding independent journalists and independent media outlets, so that the Internet becomes a public tool and not a state weapon.”

Anne Marie Engtoft Meldgaard is Denmark's Tech Ambassador. We talked to her about the fragmentation of the internet as well what it means for the future and DW Akademie’s work. 


What is a Tech Ambassador, and why did Denmark choose to have one? 

Anne Marie Engtoft: It's really about updating foreign policy for the 21st century. Especially for a relatively small country like Denmark, where emerging technologies are having a huge impact on our society, democracy, businesses, and of course our children and youth too. And there are the political questions: what is Denmark's role in the world? How do we influence the world where critical technologies are increasingly becoming part of global competition? What does this mean for traditional diplomacy? This is all about connectivity, and the values that lead our digital transformation.  


How would you define a fragmented Internet? And is it already fragmented? 

It’s partly an infrastructure question, and partly a question of perceived and lived experiences. When the Internet first went live in 1992, the idea was that it could connect us all regardless of who and where we are. The initial models were based on bottom-up distribution, not led by traditional power politics. Now we can see that the Internet has been co-opted, or at least influenced by real world dynamics.  

Keeping an open, free Internet is crucial. There is a growing number of private actors who can limit access or institute shutdowns across the world, as we’ve also seen in Russia’s war against Ukraine. So, although parts of the Internet are fractured, NGOs such asAccess Now are campaigning to engage governments for digital rights, while other institutions provide additional layers of protection. As a result, many people still perceive the Internet as quite open. 


In your opinion, what is the biggest consequence of fragmentation for freedom of expression?  

Well, if the Internet was shut off for the rest of the day, Id wouldn’t be able to do my job, and would have no meaningful public or private communication. I wouldn’t be able to contact my doctor, or if I was in prison in another country, I wouldn’t have access to my legal representation. This means my freedom of speech is limited and a whole range of protections are not available.  

During contested periods such as elections, shutting off the internet has an immediate political impact as well as long-term consequences. We can see these in Iran, for example, where opposition and all the brave women have nothing more than a smartphone with which to communicate.  


How do you see the future of the digital divide, and what do we need to do? 

The digital divide is about global inclusion. Rather than thinking about one laptop at time, we need to see this as critical digital infrastructure. It's public infrastructure. It's the ability to influence global affairs, to be part of global trade.  

We have millions of young people, particularly in the Global South, who are longing for equal employment and social opportunities, and a chance to influence their own countries and beyond, be it on climate change or social affairs. To that end, they need a reliable, affordable, and consistent Internet that is not only represented by one app. We’ve seen how Meta functions as the Internet in some countries. People need full, affordable access, and also the right skills to become active users, rather than passive consumers.  


Let’s continue with the tech companies. Where do you see their responsibility? 

Most tech companies are inherently still driven by the fact that they're massive corporations with shareholders, and shareholders need a certain return. Their purpose in Menlo Park, Cupertino, and Silicon Valley is not to figure out how to create affordable Internet access and opportunities for people living thousands of miles away. That's the role of global governance.  

The innovative c apacity of the Internet has been monopolized by a handful of large companies. Their sheer size and influence means that their responsibility is completely different from that of traditional businesses. This can only be harnessed through the full breadth of regulatory power, combined with public pressure. Of course, this requires public funds, which is also needed for investing in digital public infrastructure around the world.  

The early potential that Internet entrepreneurs dreamed of has not materialized, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to harness that potential if we think hard about the sorts of issues we want to solve through technology. This is not about moving fast and breaking things. Governments can also incentivize innovation here.  


What is the role of the media on the topic of Internet fragmentation? 

A free and independent press is probably one of the most important pillars of any functioning and thriving democracy. We assumed that the global Internet would help journalists do their job, but we now see the highest ever number of imprisoned journalists. Journalists are under pressure from authoritarian governments who turn their public engagement against them and often choose technology as their weapons.  

This means we should put much more focus on safeguarding independent journalists and independent media outlets, so that the Internet becomes a public tool and not a state weapon. For example, I have been able to follow the war in Ukraine since February last year because so many people are providing coverage with their smartphones, at great personal risk. And so, we're seeing this plethora of engagement and storytelling. Our collective role is to serve the security and integrity of that, and make it a distinct part of how we design governments and how we think about technology. 


Anne Marie Engtoft Meldgaard is Denmark's Tech Ambassador, representing the Danish Government in global tech industry and emerging technology governance forums. The Tech Ambassador and her team have a global mandate and a physical presence in Silicon Valley, Copenhagen and Beijing, transcending borders and regions in rethinking the traditional understanding of a diplomatic representation.

Interview: Bahia Albrecht