In 2009, Robert Kaplan published an article on Foreign Policy with the eloquent title “The Revenge of Geography” emphasizing that geography, despite the many theories that gave it up for dead, continues to be an integral element of international relations. In particular, according to Kaplan, despite globalization, the the 21st century international order will continue to deal with territory’s political value in the context of economic and social dynamics, too, underlining how:
“Not only wealth, but political and social order, will erode in many places, leaving only nature's frontiers and men's passions as the main arbiters of that age-old question: Who can coerce whom? We thought globalization had gotten rid of this antiquarian world of musty maps, but now it is returning with a vengeance”.
We might wonder whether Kaplan's “realist” question about Who can coerce whom? may be relevant in the digital arena, too. In particular, in light of the fact that one of the founding layers of cyberspace is based on geo-referenceable infrastructures, can we discern the geopolitics of cyberspace? And what can be, in this context, the geopolitical feature of virtual elements such as data?
In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to contextualize one of the fundamental characteristics of the digital society, namely the submarine cables wherein, according to some research, 99% of the data we exchange daily passes through, ultimately underscoring the geographical component of data. Moreover, data exchanges are enabled by another feature of the digital environment: the convergence between public and private elements, which are increasingly intersecting with one another.
The current pandemic has highlighted the importance of data both from a scientific point of view (for example, data exchanges about different variants of the Coronavirus, or on the trend of the epidemiological curve, etc.) and from a political point of view (for example, regarding the sensitivity of public opinion on the vaccination campaign). Given its relevance, the way data is collected, used, and managed is becoming a geopolitical issue. For example, the Chinese approach around cyberspace and the internet as a “continuum” of the national territory could be considered by some observers as a legitimate choice to control information that would otherwise jeopardize national security. However, the Chinese perspective is not suited to the values and cultural context of the European Union, where data protection is considered a milestone of privacy and seen as a human right. As such, a geopolitical confrontation on geographical and legal issues is emerging, ultimately raising the following questions: in which territorial jurisdiction does data reside? How — and by whom — is data governed? What legal framework is applied to the collection, management, and usage of data? And ultimately, who holds the real power of data?
In light of this, the urgency to create a data governance system able to “absorbe” political and cultural differences — which are currently affecting the digital world — is emerging. In this context, the European Union has proven to be a relevant player through the GDPR, which has become an international best practice in the field of data protection. However, the geopolitics of data also affects like-minded countries, as evidenced by the decision of Schrems II issued by the European Court of Justice in 2020, which invalidated the Privacy Shield, i.e. the protected data transfer regime within the European Union.
The issue of the geopolitics of data goes beyond the Internet alone: it will also increasingly concern the interaction between data and artificial intelligence. In fact, AI will have the potential to, inter alia, transform the international arena and increase the number of non-state actors with the ability to influence data collection processes as well as the things data will be used for. In light of this, recalling Kaplan’s words, we should consider Who can coerce whom? in the geopolitical confrontation around data.