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September 10, 2021updated 15 Sep 2021 3:44pm

Tallinn Digital Summit: Democracies must set standards for ‘trusted connectivity’

The US, Europe and other democracies must work together on digital standards or autocratic regimes will lead the way.

By Cristina Lago

A common framework to build on digital infrastructure and cross-border data flows must be developed by the US, Europe and the world’s other leading democracies. If a system based on democratic values is not established quickly, autocratic regimes will set the rules of the game, speakers at this year’s Tallinn Digital Summit concluded.

To achieve these basic guidelines, “like-minded” countries should work on a ‘trusted connectivity’ framework that serves as the cornerstone from which to implement policies and initiatives.

Under the title ‘Rallying the world’s democracies with trusted connectivity’, the prime minister of Estonia, Kaja Kallas, was joined at the Tallinn Digital Summit by her Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki, as well as Mathias Cormann, the secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), US secretary of commerce Gina Raimondo, and the executive vice president of the European Commission, Valdis Dombrovskis, to discuss what are those common grounds that democratic countries should be working on for digital development.

Tallinn Digital Summit: what is ‘trusted connectivity’?

Defining and agreeing on the common grounds for a trusted connectivity framework has been the focal point of the Tallinn Digital Summit.

American think tank Atlantic Council, which was present at the summit, defines trusted connectivity as the framework for democratic countries’ governments and the private sector “to promote and maintain technical, legal, and political assurances to build and invest in transformative infrastructure” based on free, open, transparent and market-driven values. The framework is designed “to counter exploitative Chinese efforts” of “untrusted connectivity” that the Atlantic Council defines as opaque, autocratic and controlled.

Kaush Arha, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, who moderated the panel, said that “trusted connectivity” is “a very important term to the free world” that democracies should bring forward to counter efforts by autocratic regimes.

The panellists agreed that the US, EU and “like-minded” partners should leave differences aside and put proposals forwards as “the other side” is already doing that. Although there was no naming of countries as who the other side could be, it was clearly hinted by panellists in the summit that this “other side” is headed by Russia and China.

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Prime minister Kallas reinforced the importance of meetings like the Tallinn Digital Summit to not only use a common language but also to share the values and principles that countries must agree on to move forward in technology development. The difference between democracies and autocracies when it comes to technology is how they use it, she added.

Tallinn Digital Summit trusted connectivity

Prime minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas, left, addresses the audience during the Tallinn Digital Summit. (Photo by Renee Altrov)

“The approach of democracies is openness, transparency, equal footing rule of law and is not the same for autocracies,” Kallas said. “We need to agree on the basic principles between ourselves because we see that the other side is doing that.”

However, it was unclear how democratic values would be defined or which ones they are. Participating in the panel was Poland’s prime minister Morawiecki, whose party, right-wing populist Law and Justice, has often been at odds with the EU and the Biden administration in the US because of its reactionary approach to social issues, including anti-abortion and anti-LGBT policies which have been implemented in Poland.

A model to replicate could be the so-called Three Seas Initiative (3SI), a programme founded in 2015 that brings together 12 countries around the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas to promote cooperation for the development of digital sector, energy and transport infrastructure.

“First and foremost, the Three Seas Initiative is a platform to bring together the transatlantic community even closer, which is the European Union and the United States plus Canada which is so important for the proliferation of values mentioned but also to strengthen our alliance,” Morawiecki said of the initiative, of which Poland is part.

What is the lowest common denominator?

US secretary of commerce Raimondo highlighted the Biden administration’s commitment to a trillion-dollar digital investment, including enabling high-speed and affordable broadband for all US citizens and developing digital literacy skills.

“Our ability to innovate as a country depends upon our citizens being educated, being digitally literate, being connected. And the stronger we are domestically, the more able we are also to invest abroad,” said Raimondo, who added that the US is strongly committed to investing in the 3SI, which will ultimately accrue benefit to “all democracies”.

“Fundamentally we have the same view about privacy, of human rights, democratic values… who will set the standards of cybersecurity? Who will set the standards of artificial intelligence?” Raimondo told the panel, adding that setting the rules of the road “cannot be left to autocratic governments, it has to be on us.”

The European Commission’s Dombrovskis added that trusted connectivity must respect human rights standards as well as data protection standards, and that “those are approaches that are reflected in different EU initiatives and also legislative proposals which are currently under discussion”.

If the EU and US work together we are much better placed to set the standards which have the potential to become international standards.
Gina Raimondo

To project this approach globally, Dombrovskis suggested working on bilateral initiatives with “like-minded partners” who share human rights, democratic and data-protection values. But to be within this organising framework, countries need “a more broader, generic framework of trusted connectivity to talk amongst”, added the OECD’s Cormann. In Arha’s view, the EU is getting caught between the US and China and therefore democratic countries should keep a single focus on what keeps them united.

“If the EU and US work together we are much better placed to set the standards which have the potential to become international standards than if we try to do it separately because there are other countries working in that direction,” Raimondo added.

However, Arha acknowledged that the US and the EU have to deal with issues about connectivity, interoperability or data privacy to move forward on any agreements or cooperation.

It remains to be seen what are the minimum standards that countries will need to agree on when developing trusted connectivity frameworks and when enabling data flows.


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