Two years ago, Casper Klynge, an experienced Danish diplomat with a background in crisis management in places like Afghanistan, became the first nation-state ambassador to Silicon Valley. It’s his job to speak with Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft in the U.S. and with companies like Alibaba and Baidu in China, and to treat these businesses as if they were global superpower nation-states.
“We had to build a new team, we had to establish our own policies, we had to find out how to penetrate the tech companies in a way [that] you can have a strategic political discussion. I think this sort of approach to crisis management or finding ways in chaos is not necessarily a bad thing to have in the backpack when doing this kind of job,” Klynge told VentureBeat in a phone interview.
Parts of his job description are pretty old school, such as talking with other countries and relaying important information back to decision-makers in Denmark, but other aspects, like forging relationships within major tech companies, are less familiar. It’s a contrast Klynge said he encountered on his first trip to Google headquarters, when he and his deputy wore suits with no ties to be casual, only to meet with a Google employee in shorts, flip-flops, and an old Metallica T-shirt.
Denmark’s goal is to place ambassadors at “epicenters of transformation around the world” to better understand the impact of tech on Danish society and how to prepare for an increasingly digital world. The initiative is also intended to help represent Danish views on a number of issues that impact the country’s national security interests, from cybersecurity to terrorism to the ways tech platforms have undermined democracy in recent years.
Klynge spoke with VentureBeat recently to discuss the evolving definition of “techplomacy,” why he thinks other nations should dispatch ambassadors to Silicon Valley, and how small nations must band together to withstand powerful companies like Facebook and Google.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VentureBeat: I saw in the New York Times piece that your job is to treat these tech giants like superpowers. Why?
Klynge: Yeah, exactly. If you ask a sort of rhetorical question on who has the biggest impact on our society or us as individuals, I think today it’s almost a no-brainer that the big companies, whether it’s Google or Facebook or Microsoft or some of the Chinese companies like Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba — well, the impact on my life is actually a lot bigger in many ways than what country X might have an impact on us. So that’s also the new digital reality if you like, a new reality around international relations. What we try to do is acknowledge that and seek to influence what is happening.
VentureBeat: I think that’s something that translates in journalism as well, in tech journalism. As somebody who covers policy quite often, I subscribe to the idea that if these companies amass money and influence on par with nation-states, then we should cover them as such and be a bit more scrutinizing in our coverage wherever possible. But how does that translate for your job? I mean, does treating a business like a nation-state carry other consequences beyond dispatching an ambassador?
Klynge: Well, I think what it does is it sort of recalibrates how we look at the company. So one of the things I hear when talking to journalists or other countries is there’s nothing new about big multinational companies having an impact.
In my view, what is different as opposed to [others is] these companies transcend everything, you know, it’s a search engine, but it’s also an autonomous vehicle company. You harvest data on so many different levels that the impact is in my view unprecedented, so what this implies is that we need to change our mindset on how we look at them. I mean, I think the honeymoon is over.
We cannot look at them anymore as being neutral platforms that are just neutral purveyors of whatever people want to do. I think we have to treat them in a more mature and responsible way, which also means that we are less naive, we are more balanced, and also making demands holding them accountable. So I think, you know, my role and my job is just a symptom of something more systematic that we are trying to do to get a more balanced, realistic view on technology companies and technology per se.
VentureBeat: You’ve been doing this for about two years, is that right?
VentureBeat: What’s changed in Silicon Valley since you started this job?
Klynge: Ah, not enough, haha. But joking aside, I think there has been a degree of change, basically caused by some of the scandals and discussions. We’ve seen potential meddling in elections, we’ve seen big cyber attacks. We’ve also seen, of course, things like Cambridge Analytica and huge leaks of personal data. And I think that’s been useful in the sense that it changed the public perception in a more realistic way, but I think it’s also impacted some executives in the big tech companies and also some of the investors and VCs so that the word “governance” or the word “regulation” causes less nausea today than they did two years ago, in my view. What I mean by that is that today there is an understanding that the companies also have to take responsibility.
And we’re not where we need to be. Let me put that out there very clearly. I can tell you some pretty mind-blowing experiences from the first two years in this job, but there is a little bit of positive optimism in the sense that I do think that on a global level, we’re beginning to recalibrate how we look at technology and the tech companies, and I think that’s helpful and useful, but without external pressure from governments, from media like yourself from civil society, and perhaps also from employees, I think we won’t win this battle. I think external pressures is what eventually will make the companies and the executives do things in a more mature way.
VentureBeat: How do you think small countries should approach techplomacy differently than larger nations?
Klynge: I think we have a few advantages and then a few challenges of being such a small country. I think one of the advantages is that we are fairly small, so it is perhaps easier for us to experiment with a diplomatic representation in a way that no other country has done in the past, I think what we have going for us also is being one of the most connected countries in the world. Nobody can accuse us of technophobia or being reluctant to embrace new technologies, because we have a population that’s very forward thinking, but the basic challenge or approach to foreign policy issues when you are small like Denmark is you have to build alliances and coalitions. You have to multilateralize what you do, so that’s what we’re trying to do here as well.
We realize that we’ll never win the fight with the big tech companies, so we need more countries around the table, but we also need more companies around the table that are assuming this responsibility. So that’s sort of the KPI for what I do and what my team is doing — to get more stakeholders around the table and continue having some of these not-always-very-easy conversations so that we treat this area in the way that I believe firmly is absolutely necessary.
VentureBeat: Are you suggesting that other nations should also create ambassadors to Silicon Valley, as Denmark has done?
Klynge: Absolutely, and it’s not only because I’m very lonely. It’s also because it takes that understanding that this is not on the borderline for foreign policy or something a bit strange. This is central to everything we do, whether it’s security policy or development aid, or in our case European Union affairs. Technology is so fundamental for everything, so I think it’s a very natural step that countries will treat this in a way according to reality. And again, I think smaller countries or smaller economies like ours actually have more at stake in the digital age, and therefore I think that it’s only natural that we’ll see more countries do this.
VentureBeat: To that point of multilateralism: Have you had talks with smaller nations to band together to force tech giants to address certain issue?
Klynge: Absolutely, and of course we have the advantage of being part of the European Union. So some of that is happening at the European Union level, but what we spend a lot of time doing is building global coalitions — because Europe is important, but we also need to know the Koreas, the Japans, the Indias, the Ghanas, the Mexicos of this world to also look at issues in a more systematic way.
There is a specific European context which is important, but if you look at sort of [the] digital divide and the inability to reap the benefits of the digital age, you have real causes for potential conflict or migration. So we also need a global view on what technology is doing, both from a positive or good point of view, but also in terms of focusing more on challenges.
VentureBeat: A few weeks ago, Jeff Bezos recommended what facial recognition legislation should look like, and then I was reading through Google’s SVP of global affairs Kent Walker gave a speech in Dublin last month, and it had a series of recommendations on what smart regulation should look like. What are your thoughts on tech companies of this size laying out publicly what they think regulation should look like? I imagine it looks a bit different to a smaller country than a larger one, more of a push than a suggestion.
Klynge: Yeah, but just to take the positive side first, I think it’s actually a positive step that today the companies are beginning to come forward with their proposals on how to regulate themselves. If we had this conversation two years ago, I think you would have had difficulties pointing at examples where the companies have themselves taking the steps to try to begin discussing how to regulate AI or facial recognition systems, etc. So I think that’s a positive step.
Now, whether some of this is window dressing or done from a technical point of view, I think the jury’s still out on that one, and I’m sure it’s a combination of all of the above. What I would say, and that’s a cardinal point for us, you know, it’s great that you have Kent Walker or Zuckerberg advocating for more regulation, but the fundamental requirement to do smart regulation is transparency. Whether you are a small country like Denmark or you’re the European Union or the U.S. government, it is extremely difficult to regulate unless you have a certain degree of insight into the technology or platform or whatever we’re talking about.
So in my view, the next battle will be about increasing transparency, and by that I don’t mean that we want to open algorithms where we can go in and see how they build it. I don’t think that’s necessary, but we need to build in checks and balances and mechanisms that will ensure that regulators or lawmakers or policymakers will understand enough of how the systems work in order to regulate in a smart way. And to be honest with you, I think this is a win-win. I think it should be in the interest of the companies also to be more forward-leaning in providing enough transparency for us to do this in a good way. I think bad regulation is bad not only for countries or citizens. It’s also bad for the companies who will eventually perhaps be less commercially successful.
VentureBeat: Do you think that would sort of reshape the idea of diplomacy being exclusively between nation-states?
Klynge: I think it will supplement it, because we’re not acting to sort of disregard traditional diplomacy — there will still be embassies between capitals — but I think it’s an absolutely necessary supplement that will help focus on technology in a way which is not there right now.
VentureBeat: I wrote an article recently about the European AI ecosystem after the TechBBQ conference in Copenhagen, and there were a lot of opinions on the subject. But I wanted to ask you if you have any thoughts on that notion of how the European AI ecosystem can catch up with the growing ecosystems in China and the United States?
Klynge: I’m not an expert on this, but my sense is that when you look at Europe and what’s happening on AI and machine learning, it’s not bad at all — you have a lot of super interesting startups, you have a lot of entrepreneurs and data scientists doing great things in AI.
I think the big problem or the big challenge for Europe is we aren’t scaling those companies. So as soon as they become attractive, they’re typically acquired by one of the big tech companies, be it American [or] European, but also Asian and Chinese companies. So I think that’s the big question mark: How do we create an AI environment in Europe where we can also scale and build the next generation of unicorns? And I think that’s important, from a technology point of view, but it’s also important from an economic growth or job creation point of view.
I think there is of course a big question mark if you look at this from a geopolitical point of view. You know, others have said that we’re moving from the age of innovation into the age of implementation on AI, and here of course access to the rocket fuel of these systems — namely data — is going to be quite critical. And it goes without saying that in Europe, we have a very consumer protection-oriented approach with a lot of rights on individual data, which doesn’t necessarily exist in the U.S., and certainly not in China. So I think, from an international point of view, I think the big question mark is will it give China a competitive edge, because they basically have unlimited access to data, which potentially could help them build much more sophisticated AI systems, much more advanced systems, that on a global level will sort of sweep the market.
I think that’s something we have to pay attention to as Europeans. I think it’s also something we have to pay attention to from a transatlantic point of view, because the approach to technology is very different in China than it is in Europe and the U.S., and the deduction of all of that is that I think is we need to work very closely together between the U.S. and Europe.
VentureBeat: How is the work that your team does in China different than the work that you do in Silicon Valley?
Klynge: I think the similarity is that we have conversations with Chinese authorities and conversations with Chinese companies. So I’m leaving Sunday to go to China on my next trip. And so we have a combination of speaking to the authorities. And then we meet with a number of different companies — meeting Tencent next week, a couple of companies on blockchain, a couple of companies on health care, etc. It goes without saying that we also look into the application of technology in China. And what I think is important is that the days of just copying what happens in the U.S. and Europe, I think those days are over, and they would be very naive to not look at China as an innovation hub. Certainly what I’ve seen on previous journeys and visits has been very impressive.
But it is also true that there are things that we should be preoccupied with, and essentially also concerned about. You know, the social credit system is a good example. I think facial recognition systems is something we need to pay more attention to, and you don’t have to look further away than what is happening in Hong Kong right now to see that these technologies have a fantastic potential. But they certainly also have the potential for being misused for control and surveillance.
But having ears and eyes on the ground, even if we disagree with the Chinese authorities, that’s what diplomacy has always been about. We don’t agree with the government in a lot of the countries where we have a presence with an embassy. So looking at China through the prism of technology, I think, reveals quite a lot of things, both in a good, impressive, positive way — but also things that we should pay attention to from a value-driven or democratic level.
VentureBeat: Do you feel that, given most of these tech giants are located in the United States, the U.S. can be considered more of an oligarchy than a democracy?
Klynge: No, I wouldn’t say that, but what I will say is I think some of the companies have sort of lulled themselves into believing that they were above governments and above the values of the systems we have in place, and I think that honeymoon is definitely over. So I think when I talk to companies about it, I think that any mission statement of a company in North America or in Europe, the mission statement’s first point should be we’re pro-democracy or pro-human rights, and I think accountability and the need for us to demand more from these companies is acute.
I don’t think they are deliberately trying to undermine democracy or to fight human rights, but I think some of their technologies or their platforms have been involved in something that has put at jeopardy our way of life, and they’re a product of Western values, and therefore, they also should be responsible for defending the various values.