Remarks by AIT Director W. Brent Christensen at the Taiwan Internet Governance Forum July 5, 2019


July 5, 2019

Remarks by AIT Director W. Brent Christensen
at the Taiwan Internet Governance Forum
July 5, 2019

Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin, Digital Minister Tang, Acting Chairman of the National Communications Commission Chen, TWIGF Chairman Wu, ICANN Board Director Maemura, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, zao an!

As part of our AIT@40 campaign to celebrate 40 years of the Taiwan Relations Act, we just concluded digital economy and technology month in June.  As the American author William Gibson once famously said, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”  The Internet Governance Forum process is, in many ways, where the future first gets governed, and I would argue its task is to ensure that the benefits of that future are more evenly distributed.

As we move into an internet-of-everything age, internet governance is fast becoming the governance-of-everything.  It is incumbent upon all of us to ensure the internet lives up to its early promise of ushering in an increasingly free society and does not become yet another tool of oppression.  The stakes are this high.

In particular, I would like to place squarely on the agenda what we perceive to be the three most pressing challenges in internet governance.

The first is cybersecurity in a 5G world.  As everyone here knows well, the United States is particularly focused on the development of 5G network infrastructure.  5G is not just about telecommunications equipment and the software that powers it, but is rather the foundation for every transformational technology of the future, including autonomous vehicles, industrial robotics, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things.  The United States and our like-minded partners have grave concerns about the use of Chinese-made telecommunications equipment, software, and services.  If China controls the 5G infrastructure, it will have the undeniable ability to steal the data that flows on these networks, and even shut down the internet of other countries if they wanted to.  Taiwan has been aware of these risks for many years, having banned Chinese-made telecommunications equipment from its infrastructure more than five years ago.  It is only now that the rest of the world is beginning to follow Taiwan’s wise example.  But the risks also extend far beyond 5G infrastructure, but also to the basic functioning of an internet-of-things world.  If everything is connected, everything is hackable.  If malign actors are able to manipulate source code and software updates, every digital convenience becomes a potential cyber vulnerability.

The second major challenge is protecting the integrity of our democratic institutions.  The core truth is there are those who would seek to use the openness of the internet to sow division, create polarization, and even spread outright falsehoods.  The challenges associated with disinformation, misinformation, and foreign interference in democratic society are so difficult to address precisely because they call into question the inherent tensions that exist between core democratic values, such as freedom of speech and due process.  How we balance these competing values is not clear.  As Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and credible reports of foreign interference in the 2018 local elections in Taiwan demonstrate so vividly, we are in a new era.  The biggest threats today are not troops landing on the beach, but efforts by malign actors to use the openness of our societies against us.  These actors believe that if through their efforts they can make our societies more polarized, less able to distinguish fact from fiction, and more ungovernable, then people will begin to lose faith in democratic institutions.  Ensuring this does not happen is the collective responsibility of all stakeholders within the internet governance community.

The third central challenge is making sure that the future is more evenly distributed.  The truth is the vast majority of the economic gains of the digital economy have flowed into the hands of very few.  From a socio-economic point of view, the internet has seen less win-win and more winner-takes-all.  While industry and startups are important, we also need to take a step back and understand how all of these new digital technologies – in particular artificial intelligence – will transform the societies in which we live.  Some experts argue AI and emerging digital technologies have the potential to be more disruptive than even the industrial revolution, fundamentally altering more than 90% of all work.  As the current nationalist populist backlash against globalization shows, when we don’t think beforehand how major social, economic, and technological changes will impact our societies, and fail to obtain democratic buy-in for policies that will unleash such transformative change, we sow the seeds of disruption and division.    In this regard, we at AIT have been particularly inspired by the work of Digital Minister Audrey Tang on this front.  She is pioneering, not only in Taiwan but globally, how we can use emerging technologies to make governments more transparent and democratic and how digital social entrepreneurs can use technology to solve social problems.  We are also grateful to Legislator Karen Yu for her work with the Social Innovation Congress.

I would argue the solution to all three of these challenges lies in going back to the original promise of an open internet by integrating democratic norms and values into every aspect of internet governance.  Bedrock democratic values of the rule of law, multi-stakeholder governance, protection of citizen privacy, and internet freedom must be the foundation of all of our internet governance discussions.  Taiwan has a critical role to play in these discussions.  Taiwan is a digitally-connected vibrant democracy that also happens to be central to internet hardware and software supply chains.  The ideas that emerge out of the Taiwan Internet Governance Forum must not only be an uncompromising rejection of using digital technologies to restrict the freedom of millions of religious minorities and the creation of AI-enabled social capital systems, but must also provide practical solutions that uphold democratic values while addressing legitimate internet security concerns.

None of this will be easy, but I have every confidence Taiwan is up to the task.

Thank you.