Four months ago, I joined Microsoft, leaving behind a career in foreign policy and diplomacy that took me around the world. I have lived and worked in places as varied as the Balkans, Sudan, Afghanistan and Indonesia, working for the Danish Government, NATO and the European Union, including for the then EU High Representative in Brussels. But my last posting was the most unusual: based in Silicon Valley, I was the first ambassador of any country to the technology industry. As part of the ‘TechPlomacy’ initiative, my role was to boost dialogue and understanding between technology giants and governments – something of paramount importance in the digital age.
Since starting at Microsoft, I’ve heard one question again and again: ”Has it been an enormous professional change?” Sorry to disappoint, but in many ways, this move represents continuity. Not only have I joined a visionary, societally responsible organization with a track record of building bridges between governments and the private sector, it also brought me back to Brussels, the city where my career in international relations began. In short, I was excited to get to work with an impressive team of experienced colleagues. Then came COVID-19. Two weeks into my new job, the pandemic shut down the continent and closed our office before I’d even settled in.
It’s been an extraordinary induction period, to say the least. I had hoped to get to know everyone in person, rather than from behind a screen – and it’s certainly not how I envisaged meeting the stakeholders shaping the most pressing digital policy issues across Europe. But necessity is the mother of invention. Like millions of other people working from home, my team and I have made remote collaboration and conversation our ‘new normal’. And I’ve been grateful that European Commissioners, EU institution officials, MEPs, government representatives, trade associations, academics, and civil society representatives have been willing to do the same. One silver lining to the crisis has been the ability to pack my schedule with back-to-back Teams meetings!
Through these conversations, several key takeaways shine through. Firstly, to digitize or not to digitize is no longer a question. If there’s one thing this crisis has shown, it’s the integral role of technology in our daily lives. It has enabled many of us to keep working, and stay connected, informed and engaged – not in the same way as before, granted, but in new ways.
Secondly, the crisis has accelerated the pace of digitization at a previously unfathomable rate. As our CEO Satya Nadella has pointed out, “we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.” No sector has been left out. We’ve witnessed the adoption of digital tools to support first responders in healthcare, universities switching to remote learning in a matter of days, and political leaders upholding democracy through virtual sittings and voting sessions.
However, this increased dependence on technology has also raised new challenges. Healthcare organizations already under strain have been deliberately targeted by cyberattacks, while individuals have been preyed upon by cyber-criminals looking to exploit their fear with COVID19-themed phishing attacks. And the development and deployment of contact tracing apps, for instance, has rightly highlighted the need to safeguard privacy and fundamental rights.
My conversations with European leaders have also illustrated the devastating ramifications of the crisis, both on a human and a socioeconomic level. Far too many lives have been lost, and too many more have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Europe’s economic growth has likely been set back several years. Amidst this uncertainty, I understand the debate about our dependency on technology platforms and the need to stand firm on defending basic rights and fundamental values in times of crisis. But try to imagine how much more severe the reality of the past few months would have been without access to 21st century technology.
U.S. technology companies, including Microsoft, have a responsibility to listen and learn from concerns about the role we are playing in responding to the crisis. As both a European and a tech optimist, however, I firmly believe that technology is and will continue to be a positive force in Europe’s recovery – but only if deployed responsibly, in line with European values, and with respect to democracy and fundamental rights.
Microsoft’s longstanding commitment in this regard is one reason why I joined the company. Calls for technology companies to act in a socially responsible way are on the rise, including from the industry itself, even if critics argue that some are somewhat late to the party. Regardless of timing, we should welcome that more and more companies are proactively advocating for increased responsibility. However, actions speak louder than words, and we must all live up to the commitments we make.
European policymakers will continue to set the global pace of change when it comes to defining guardrails for technology and holding tech companies accountable, while still enabling innovation and international cooperation. As European Commission Executive Vice-President Vestager recently pointed out, digital sovereignty is not necessarily about doing everything in Europe, but rather about ensuring that Europe has the final say in defining the rules by which all tech companies, including non-Europeans, have to operate. While we may have different viewpoints on the concept, the underlying concerns are legitimate, and these must be the fundamental starting point for any related conversation. The GAIA-X project is a case in point – but the logic applies across the board. At Microsoft, we want to support Europe’s digital aspirations and help address the challenges at hand, based on European values and European standards.
Digital issues are fast becoming high politics and geopolitics. They are interwoven with discussions on everything from national security and defence, to electoral integrity, to the use of data in areas like healthcare, to content regulation. No matter what item on the global agenda we are looking at, technology is part of the challenge and the solution. The adoption of GDPR as a global standard for data protection has shown just how much clout the EU has when it comes to defining parameters for the responsible usage of technology. And, as I wrote recently, the EU is to be commended for taking the lead in working towards a legislative framework for the responsible use of AI. In our increasingly polarised world, Europe’s leadership in defining the global standards for technology is needed more than ever.
This crisis has shown the potential of technology to change things for the better. But for this to continue, technology companies and governments need to be aligned on values, ambitions and a shared commitment to making technology work for everyone. I used to help governments better understand the tech industry; now I’m helping Microsoft understand and support European priorities. So even though I’ve joined a new crew, the mission remains (almost) the same, albeit from a different angle. Together with my team, I look forward to taking Microsoft’s relationship with Europe to the next level – and, once something close to normality returns, meeting to discuss these issues in person over a cup of coffee. Stay safe and see you soon.