Welcome to DigitalPolitik (№1)

A newsletter on states, markets, and their digital intersection by Sean McDonald and An Xiao Mina

A world map of submarine cables reminds us of the physical bounds of the internet. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

DigitalPolitik is a twice-monthly newsletter on states, markets, and their digital intersection. It started, as these things do, with a conversation on Twitter back in May between An Xiao Mina and Sean Martin McDonald about the similarities between China’s Warring States Period and the politics of the internet. So, we started writing an article together — but more than that, we found a lens. And, once we started looking through it, the world started to look a little different, and maybe even made a bit more sense.

We started calling the phenomenon #digitalpolitik (dig-E-tahl-pol-E-tique), as a shorthand for the global politics of digitization. As far as we can tell, the term was coined by the German Government, who use it to describe their digital economic strategy. We use digitalpolitik more like realpolitik, and use it to refer to the increasingly adversarial convergence of geopolitics, markets, memes, misinformation, machinations, and movements.

We’ll focus on the connections between events — the emerging tactics and underlying political theories that seem to drive or influence particular outcomes. This newsletter will build on that idea, curating links and light analysis that illustrate and evolve our understanding of the public and private economies of the global internet — or, as we’re increasingly seeing, internets.

We’ve included a bit more about us below the links, in case you’re wondering what brings us to this, or what we’re hoping to achieve.

Without further ado, we bring you the inaugural edition of #DigitalPolitik:


The Political Economy of the internets. One of the core, underlying observations of #digitalpolitik is the political layer of competition amidst digitization. The political competition for advantage in the digital economy isn’t just about cross-border data flows or international cyberwar treaties, which aim to create a global standard — it’s more commonly played out in domestic market regulation, which positions sovereigns within their own jurisdictions. In addition to traditional diplomatic and economic governmental processes, #digitalpolitik is defined by the relationships between public institutions and private companies. While each government draws up their own strategies, there’s an emerging ontology of tactics and motivations, that increasingly define the political economy of the internets.

As we highlight in an upcoming article, the US and China are the internet’s polarizing hegemons, but there’s a lot of room for positioning in the middle. That middle ground occupies everything from economic unions trying to build digital trade policies, like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation or the AU’s Good ID Project, to private platforms like Facebook developing traditional diplomatic arms. At the same time, the world’s mega-platforms — from Facebook to WeChat to Amazon to Baidu — are also developing a parallel theory of political economy, using their wealth and economic potential to barter with states, often as peers. And smaller countries, much like local newspapers, are in limbo, struggling to develop markets large enough to influence platforms, political unions large enough to influence global negotiations, and institutional infrastructure capable of adapting at the margins.

At this stage, whether you are more Eric Schmidt or Evgeny Morozov, what’s clear is that there isn’t ‘one’ internet — and that the negotiations, violence, and competition between them is a political economy that will shape the world for years to come.

#Superpower #Consolidator #Influencer #Projector

Identity and Legibility. The Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) announced an initiative, backed by the African Union and the Omidyar Network, to roll-out a continent-wide digital ID system. This could be one of the first non-sovereign ID systems launched at scale — and, like all ID systems, will raise a significant amount of power issues around institutional adoption and requirement.

Venezuela, explicitly taking lead from China, also introduced a new citizen identification system called the Fatherland Card. The Fatherland Card continuously transmits information about citizens back to central, government servers. The Fatherland Card is the centerpiece of a larger plan to make citizens completely legible to the state — it’s already linked to a range of government services, with plans to launch a mobile payment service.

The use of increasingly invasive identity systems — whether biometric, like India’s Aadhaar, or deeply socially linked, Estonia’s e-Residency program, or China’s Social Credit Scoring system — is as controversial as it is becoming pervasive. There will be a number of important civil rights won or lost in challenging the architecture of digital ID requirements, eligibility for government representation and services, and limitations on intra-governmental data sharing.

#Consolidator #Influencer

Facebook’s Department of State. Facebook is increasingly showing its political stance, albeit reactively. The UK and Canada are calling for Facebook CEO to appear before an unprecedented, November 27 joint parliament hearing on misinformation. Zuckerberg refused. Subsequently, three additional countries — Australia, Argentina, and Ireland, joined the call. Zuckerberg, again, refused. This week, three more countries — Brazil, Latvia, and Singapore — joined the request for his appearance, now representing a combined 389m users. So far, Facebook continues to refuse.

France announced a content moderation partnership with Facebook, and will embed French regulators into the company — akin to financial regulators in investment banks. The partnership is a rare positive note in the company’s otherwise turbulent relationship with sovereigns.

Facebook was also the subject of a report in the New York Times, Delay, Deny, and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought through Crisis, which details the way the company manages its public image during an ongoing series of crises — largely stemming from its management. The Wall Street Journal reports that Mark Zuckerberg, at a recent meeting with Facebook leadership, said the company was “at war,” and that he intends to lead accordingly. Zuckerberg is concerned enough about the morale of his sentry, though, prompt a global staff Q&A.

Facebook is a lightning rod for public criticism, based a range of underlying characteristics of social media and digital markets, from advertising revenue to content curation to data use. The escalation in aggressive language is an interesting evolutio,- as are the growing investments in political lobbying and domestic influence in large markets. Platforms are unavoidably learning diplomacy, and the way that leadership engages with expressions of institutional power is slowly revealing whose authority they fear. We don’t yet know the benefits, or costs, of their alliances — or the risks posed by their militance, but it appears increasingly likely we’ll find out.


Moral Hazard. At a time when doing almost anything means sharing data with a company you have no reason to trust, it’s hard to feel as though everything isn’t moral hazard. Moral hazard is an economics term, and it means taking risks in ways that don’t harm you. The digital world is full of moral hazard, namely, most of the companies building businesses based on contributed data are doing so in way that harm them very little. Here are a few examples:

  • Amazon’s HQ2 — framed as an economic development competition, it also prompted enormous troves of infrastructure and workforce data from its 238 applicant cities.
  • Leave.EU — framed as a political movement, it was reportedly a way to create massive voter records for its funder, Arron Banks.
  • Smart Cities — framed as an inevitable evolution of urbanization, smart cities are explicitly designed to embed data collection into physical spaces — for a wide variety of public and private uses. Although there are many examples, the largest and most pitched debate surrounds Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside Project in Toronto.

The goal of this section isn’t comprehensive, it’s to illustrate the way that vital public infrastructure is being motivated, compromised, and/or co-opted by #digitalpolitik. The megatrend underneath all of this growing moral hazard, however, is the Internet of Things, which marches on, despite repeated, apocalyptic warnings from experts. Our ability to connect devices can, either at the time or long-after the encounter, co-opt the justifications for our relationships. The more open-ended our data sharing relationships, the more prone we all are to moral hazard, and the many things it will destroy along the way.


Digital Treaty Negotiations. At the 2018 Internet Governance Forum, more than 50 nations, 130 companies, and 90 civil society groups signed on to the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace. Notably, the US and China did not sign onto the Paris Call. The effort is similar to Tim Berners-Lee social “Contract for the Web,” which was endorsed by 60 non-state actors; Microsoft VP Brad Smith’s agitation for a Digital Geneva Convention; and the recent Cities for Digital Rights initiative. It’s clear that there’s a lot of interest in agreeing on a common set of rules for at least some part of the internet — but these initiatives raise as many implementation questions as they answer. They conspicuously aren’t managed by institutions with legal authority or market leverage, so are, for now, primarily branding exercises.



Cyber Sovereignty. Reasserting cyber sovereignty: how states are taking back control

Trade Intelligence: U.S. charges Chinese spies and their recruited backers in conspiracy to steal trade secrets

The Vision Fund. Softbank to wait on Khashoggi murder investigation before deciding on second Vision Fund

APEC’s Messaging: APEC: A family feud with no end in sight + APEC summit ends without statement over US-China division

The First Dick Pic Across the Bow: Cyber Command’s first offensive operation: bombing China with dick pics

Apple Today: Apple CEO Tim Cook: ‘We have to admit when the free market is not working’

Stats Can’t-ada. Why Statistics Canada’s current data practices don’t add up +

The StatsCan Controversy

No One Will See You Now: Ping An Good Doctor blazes trail in developing unstaffed, AI-assisted clinics in China

Norway or the Highway: MyData — a Nordic Model for human-centered personal data management and processing + MyData’s Nordic model for governance, a libertarian fantasy worth engaging with

Workforce Preparedness. Japan’s minister for cybersecurity has never used a computer

Intelligent Policy Design. (sic) Intel is launching its own participatory process for drafting privacy legislation

Agile Method Propaganda: Russian propaganda isn’t even that good

‘Net & Taxes: (UK) Tech giants face digital services tax

⚖: Emoji Law

Thanks for reading! Our plan is to keep and curate this newsletter — both as ongoing coverage, and as an encoded database that we build for future analysis. We understand that will heavily reflect our biases — and we’ll work on building contribution and participation that helps, but you should also know what those biases are.

About Us


Sean Martin McDonald. I’m here for the political economy of digitization — with a focus on digital and legal ways to increase public equity. I’m the CEO of FrontlineSMS, a social enterprise that builds SMS interfaces for public services and mission-driven organizations. The idea is that when we teach important systems to communicate on the platforms that reach the most people, those systems will reach the most people with the protections and services they offer. Frontline supports users in 190 countries, across a range of industries and cultures, meaning we primarily solve collective design and action problems.

I realized pretty early that communication systems were a proxy for power relationships, and so dug in on researching the international legal and governance infrastructure of the digital world. I started with the opportunities to increase equity, then some of the biggest risks, and ended with how humanitarians are (or aren’t) experimenting on the most vulnerable. Along the way, I realized that we should be using data trusts as legal vehicles for embedding multi-stakeholder governance in digital supply chains. I co-founded Digital Public to do a lot of that work, but have had generous support through fellowships with Duke’s Center for Law and Technology, the Center for International Governance Innovation, and Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab.

This newsletter is about understanding the way that governments are shaping technology systems, and the way that technology systems are, in turn, shaping governance.


An Xiao Mina. I work on issues around media, misinformation and the global internet as a researcher, technologist and author. My book, Memes to Movements, comes out in January from Beacon Press, and it looks at the intersection of internet meme culture with activism and geopolitics. I serve as director of product at Meedan, where we build tools for collaborative verification of digital media, and I’ve worked in places like China, Mexico, Uganda, Serbia, the Philippines, Germany and Korea. I’m also strategy lead for the Credibility Coalition, an effort to develop standards for content credibility through rigorous research, and co-chair at the W3C’s Credible Web Community Group.

My lived experience of the internet has made me hyper-aware of how borders, cultures and economies inform our networks and networked culture. This is most pronounced in the journey between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, two cities across the water from each other but with very different internet policies, but it’s also evident in the transition between urban Kampala and rural northern Uganda, inside and outside a refugee camp in southern Serbia, and in low-income communities in the United States vs. the heart of Manhattan. I’m interested in exploring better ways of writing and theorizing about this in a way that helps highlight the stakes and the lived experiences of our global internets. I’ve recently benefited from research fellowships at Harvard — a visiting one at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism and a yearlong one at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society which has turned into an ongoing affiliation — that have given me a stronger perspective on networks, media and power.

This past weekend, I’ve been busy with CredCon, a conference held by the Credibility Coalition and where I led a project on our standards framework. We identified many of the tensions of defining content credibility online, and that reflects one of my interests: the many philosophies emerging of how content online should be treated and, by extension, the many philosophies of the internet itself. I’ll be more present in the next issue.

DigitalPolitik is a twice-monthly newsletter on states, markets, and their digital intersection. Subscribe to our Tinyletter or follow our Medium.