Does Australia need a Digital Ambassador?

This first appeared in The Lowy Institute’s ‘The Interpreter’ on 3 February 2017.

Denmark’s recent announcement it is appointing a Digital Ambassador appears to be a world first: an ambassadorial representative from a nation state dedicated to an industrial sector, in this case the digital and tech giants like Apple, Google and Facebook, who – we are reminded by the Danes – have the economic heft approaching G20 status.

The Danish decision appears largely economic; Denmark hosts a Facebook data centre and Apple has similar plans. Clearly, it’s in their interests to ensure that this positive relationship continues.

Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen has talked up the decision: “They are companies that influence Denmark as much as other nations do.”

Ambassadorial positions are not all postings to a specific diplomatic mission – as well as representatives to international organisations like the UN, OECD and ASEAN, Australia has Ambassadors for, inter alia, Counter Terrorism; The Environment; Women and Girls; and, on point, Cyber Affairs.

But these positions are traditional in that their relationships remain largely with nations (although some are clearly focussed on non-government actors as well); none are as explicitly dedicated to liaison with corporate giants and none afford the same level of diplomatic status on companies as is usually reserved for nation states.

Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs, Dr Tobias Feakin, took up his position in January. Unlike the Danish position, Ambassador Feakin’s role appears to be mainly focussed on cyber-security, but includes voicing concerns about censorship, promoting internet access, and developing cyber capacity in our neighbours.

It’s unclear at this stage to what extent Ambassador Feakin, who has enough on his plate, will be dealing directly with Google, Facebook and their ilk. Someone may need to, for several reasons beyond the offshoring of profits, tax avoidance and e-commerce’s impact on GST takings.

Foreign ministries have engaged with international news media organisations since at least the 1500s. In addition, entertainment media like cinema have been courted by Australia to bring productions here, and movies are used as vehicles of soft power. Social media, in an era of Facebook Live, twiplomacy, and fake news are now a significant source of (mis)information and entertainment, and the varied mutations thereof.

The public diplomacy team at DFAT are, quite rightly, engaging with social media as part of their digital media strategy. It’s a massive undertaking and quite important, especially when it comes to monitoring, evaluating and impacting on the images (realistic or otherwise) of Australia than the world sees. Social media and search engines are pivotal here and engagement with them is inevitable.

Moreover, social media can be vitally important in times of crisis, such as natural disasters. Social media can monitor events and communicate crucial information, or it can be a vehicle for rumour and mischief. Clear protocols and best practice are sensible aspirations.

Alibaba, the Chinese digital giant that has recently set up shop in Australia, presents a special set of opportunities and raises some curly questions. The opportunities are clear. For Australian exporters, the access to markets in China and beyond through Alibaba e-commerce sites is potentially transformative, as some early examples attest.

A trickier proposition is the Sesame Credit score, a kind of credit rating on Alipay – a payment app with over 350 million users that has entered the Australian market, targeting Chinese tourists, using the Commonwealth Bank’s digital payments infrastructure.

The score is apparently based on users’ spending habits and bill payments, and – oddly – the number of friends on social media platforms Weibo and WeChat also using the system. Higher scores result in cheaper loans, hotel rooms, access to dating sites and the like.

The Sesame Credit score is similar to but not connected with China’s official ‘social credit system’, which tracks citizen’s behaviour (such as traffic infringements and bribery attempts). These varied activities are collated and result in a score which can determine access to loans, schools, travel permits, and much more. This facilitates increased scrutiny of Chinese citizens.

At this stage, the Sesame Credit is agnostic about what is bought (only the amounts matter, not the propriety of the purchase) and data is not shared with the government. But if the Chinese (or any other) government were to access this data, it would result in a form of state surveillance of Alipay users in Australia.

Similar fears could be raised about the data gathered by Facebook and Google. Indeed, one of the thornier issues for diplomacy and security in the digital age is how to seek cooperation with digital giants on matters like cyber-crime and countering terrorism online while at the same time ensuring privacy and data security.

So, it’s easy to imagine a full agenda for a first summit meeting, including public diplomacy and nation branding; crisis response; trade, investment and market access; and privacy and surveillance.

Perhaps the idea of a Digital Ambassador is not as silly as it first sounds?