17 November 2020

Our Connected World: Risks and Rewards

In 1994, when I was Prime Minister of Sweden, I sent the first e-mail between two heads of state.

I had been discussing with Al Gore the development of what people at the time called “The Internet Superhighway.” So I thought it would be a good idea to send an e-mail to President Clinton. There weren’t many connection hubs in Sweden, but we found one in Stockholm. I managed to send Bill Clinton an e-mail to congratulate him on ending the trade embargo with Vietnam – the first digital message between two heads of state.

We waited for a reply, but we didn’t hear back at all. After several days one of my staff called the White House to ask if they had received it. It turned out that they hadn’t connected the system yet!

At the time e-mail was seen as revolutionary; it was the year the first commercial web browser appeared.

Technology can be an enabler, but it can also create divisions. The primary division I see is generational. Young people around the globe are making new virtual connections with each other using new systems, apps and structures, while many of their parents barely understand what their children are doing.

We need to have an inclusive global digital economy, but half of the world’s population remains offline. Politicians and policy-makers need to encourage free internet access in order to help as many people as possible get connected.

This will become easier as internet access depends less on physical infrastructure and more on digital infrastructure. Within five to six years, 90 per cent of the world will be covered with mobile broadband networks of the same or better quality than we have in most of Europe today. But we need to make it affordable as well, and this comes through competition, rather than monopolising, old-fashioned telecoms structures, as can happen in corrupt regimes. The main things that are important are a benevolent regulatory environment and openness to competition, which drives down prices.

Sweden is a clear example of the ability of competition to drive prices down. We implemented a fairly radical deregulation and privatisation programme across the telecoms sector in the early 1990s, and we now have one of the best internet frameworks in the world.

You might argue that we already had a strong foundation in technology. But when I look at Africa, I see countries whose economies are developing slowly due to government monopolies on telecoms, often associated with ingrained political interests – and the result is often very high prices.

The most extreme example of cheap connectivity is Somalia, which has virtually no regulation and amongst the lowest prices for mobile communications in Africa.This is because quite a number of operators and private entrepreneurs have been going into Somalia and setting up networks. Since people need to communicate even in difficult situations, demand has been great, making it very cheap to get connected.

Another example of a country that has been very successful in digital connectivity, perhaps surprisingly, is Afghanistan. Fifteen to twenty years ago it had virtually no connectivity whatsoever. Today it has reliable and good mobile communications everywhere, which facilitates economic, political and social development in a profound way.

This is largely thanks to broad connectivity infrastructure, such as the fibre optic cables under the oceans that connect continents and tie nations together.

The new Indigo generation that will make up our future workforce and economy will live in a truly digital society, and many sectors will be forced to adapt accordingly. One example of a sector that has been transformed is the music industry. Once upon a time we had vinyl records, then we moved to CDs (which have virtually disappeared now), and now music lives and is shared in the cloud.

It’s a similar story with the media industry: the average age of a print newspaper reader in Sweden is 72! The paper and pulp industry has always been big in Sweden, and we have traditionally provided much of the paper for newspapers all over Europe. We have now had to close down much of this production in Sweden and Finland, as the demand for newsprint has gone down as media has become digital.

On the other hand, Sweden has managed to harness evolving technologies, making it a hub for entrepreneurship and growth, due to a number of different factors. We pride ourselves on being an economy that’s very open to the outside world – both in terms of trade, and in terms of people coming in. Migration has certainly been a large factor in our success. Migrants have been very important in bringing a new impetus and a fresh dynamism to the Swedish economy. We are a small nation – 10 million people isn’t much in a world of 7.3 billion – but we have the likes of Ericsson and Volvo. Our agility in adjusting to new changes in technology and our openness, not only to ideas but to talented individuals arriving from abroad, has allowed us to produce very impressive global corporations, despite being a relatively small nation.

These factors are not unique to Sweden, however many of them can be replicated. Estonia, for example, is also very small – 1.3m people. 25 years ago they were nowhere – but they are now starting to become one of the leaders in the use of digital technologies, particularly in e-government and security.

The other nation that has been very impressive in this area is South Korea. It has had a very determined policy of digitalisation. It is the most connected society in the world today, with very high internet speeds, and its vigorous entrepreneurial environment is producing lots of successful apps and new corporations. Many of them are not yet known in Europe but they are becoming big Asian brand names.

But with connectivity comes risk. In the Internet Governance Report I discuss how the future of the internet hangs in the balance. The internet isn’t just about opportunity. It can also unleash dangerous new forces on the world: malicious data breaches, uneven and unequal financial gains, and cybercrime. It can also allow unscrupulous governments to manipulate their citizens in new ways.

To combat this, we call for human rights for digital citizens. The UN Declaration of Human Rights was written before the digital age. That applies to freedom of speech, freedom of information, the right to be respected, and the right to privacy.

We need fairly strict laws regulating when the legal authorities of a country should interfere with people’s private lives, which sometimes happens for legal reasons to uphold the rule of law. We also need to extend the rule of law to cyberspace, to ensure that our legal systems are as fit for purpose online as they are offline. Innovation and growth require legal certainty, not the Wild West online.

Ultimately, I’m optimistic about the way in which technology and the opening of borders are transforming our world for the better. But I am also worried by the rise of the resulting tensions within societies facing change and disruption – the Brexit vote is one expression of that.

There is a real risk that political disenfranchisement in the United States and across Europe could have negative effects on our economies and political structures. Since the Industrial Revolution we have continually come up with ever more creative ways to change the world through technology. However, each new generation must rediscover how to channel these changes for the good of all.