From Zoom changing the way we work to artificial intelligence changing the way we shop, we've gotten used to reading about how information technology influences our daily habits and drives the world economy. But lately, we're also seeing technology make more and more front-page headlines in the realm of politics and diplomacy.
U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order that would ban Chinese social media platform TikTok is the most obvious recent example. Trump says the popular video sharing platform — more than 80 million users in the United States alone — is feeding Americans' data to the Chinese government, posing a surveillance and cybersecurity (and yes, economic) threat.
TikTok's U.S. operations risk being shut down unless the company is sold to an American firm. While corporations like Microsoft, Walmart and Oracle have expressed interest in purchasing the app, China may try to block the sale with its recently updated export control rules, which could force TikTok to obtain a license of sale to a foreign country.
It may seem strange that two economic giants would battle over a platform mostly used for lip syncing and dance challenges, but digital products like TikTok have become so vital for modern life, they've become pawns in international relations. Just like oil in the 20th century, nations are now vying for control over data as an integral resource across the economy. Whether it sparks (and fuels) wars like oil has in the past remains to be seen.
Technology is everywhere — Photo: Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/ZUMA
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, European officials are also maneuvering in tech territory. EU Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton recently noted that the continent's data is "still too dominated by non-European geo-economic actors," and that a single European market for data is a strategic necessity. "Industrial data, 5G, cyber security and computing power will shape our sovereignty for decades," Breton wrote.
Tech is also influencing domestic policy, too. While TikTok finds itself tangled up in geopolitics, five of its users wound up arrested in Cairo for their use of the app. Egyptian daily Mada Masr reports that the Cairo Economic Appeals Court will soon rule on whether five women are guilty of "infringing on family values." In Egyptian jurisprudence, the cases aren't based on laws regarding obscenity or indecent exposure, but cybercrime.
This legal designation implies that the digital realm is like a new territory that different parties are racing to claim and protect with their own laws and ideologies. It reveals that tech isn't just fundamental to economics and social evolution, but to relations among nations as well as between government and citizens.
"Geopolitics has moved into a new era, one that is more complex, harder to define and that is dangerously dominated by cyber. It operates on many levels, from macro-economics to state terrorism, the dark web, control of the internet and state competition for technological dominance," writes John Ludlow, CEO of Airmic, an association that studies corporate risk, for Raconteur. "One area this is playing out is the control of the internet — including content, rules of conduct and security. As cyber stretches into all areas of state competition, including advanced weapons, the risks to a state of being ‘switched off" is a big threat."
Whether it's the United States worrying about being "switched off" by China or the Egyptian government cracking down on internet content that threatens "family values," control over new technologies is now synonymous with power. So when looking to forecast what will be making political headlines tomorrow, it might be best to start with today's tech section.