June 27, 2019


One panel at the Niejelow Rodin Global Digital Futures Policy Forum explored global governance and cyber conflict.
One panel at the Niejelow Rodin Global Digital Futures Policy Forum explored global governance and cyber conflict.

SIPA’s annual Niejelow Rodin Global Digital Futures Policy Forum provides a venue to discuss the growing impact of digital technology and data on business, government, and society. This year’s event, devoted to the theme of “Navigating Digital Transformations: Survive or Thrive?,” took place on May 10 at Columbia University’s Italian Academy.

The 2019 conference—renamed to honor supporters Alexander Niejelow and Judith Rodin—once again convened SIPA and Columbia scholars alongside business leaders, policymakers, entrepreneurs, academics, journalists, and others to discuss a host of contemporary challenges and possible policy solutions.

Many of the individual addresses, panel discussions, and conversations drew a full house and then some. Organizers lined the walls with extra chairs to accommodate an overflow crowd.

The day began with remarks by Kara Swisher, a 25-year veteran of technology journalism known for the Recode Decode podcast and her New York Times column. [Watch keynote »]

Swisher noted the growing power of the technology giants, ticking off a series of problems that flow from Silicon Valley companies and the culture they have created: the addictive quality of contemporary technology; political polarization; what she called “outrage-ification” of culture; and more. She said such problems are not unrelated, as they might seem, but in fact connected by the companies’ relentless efforts to capture human attention.

While Facebook, Google, and others are content to reap massive profits, she added, they fail to provide meaningful regulation of their privately-run public square—leaving the rest of us are left to figure things out on our own. This represents a growing challenge when looking to a future in which “everything that can be digitized will be digitized.”

“It’s really well past time that regulators start getting involved… in the smartest way,” Swisher said. “This has been the most astonishing innovation in human communications in all of its history… but we haven’t put into place any guardrails [and we’re very much in danger without those guardrails.”

With that, the conference was off to a running start. The programming that followed considered topics including social media, electoral security, possible regulatory transformations, artificial intelligence, global governance and cyber conflict, and financial stability and cyber risk.

Can We De-Weaponize Social Media for Speech? Swisher took part in the opening discussion, which explored the necessity of reforms to social media and assessed whether these changes can come from the platforms themselves or if they require (external) legal and political remedies. “How do we change the incentive structure that drives innovation in our economy?" asked John Battelle, a journalist, entrepreneur, and SIPA research scholar. Jameel Jaffer, director of Columbia’s Knight First Amendment Institute, asked if we should have a decency principle for speech online, and what that would mean. Would we want, for example, to trade control of the free speech environment from Mark Zuckerberg to President Trump? [Watch session »]

Digital Technology and the Future of Elections. Experts weighed in on the threat to election security of cyber attacks and nation-state actors seeking to interfere with electoral processes, along with possible responses. West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner addressed the gap between how democracies and elections should work and how they function on the ground. Mozilla Fellow Renee DiResta talked about the sophistication of misinformation efforts, suggesting that online Russian activities went so far as to “recruit Americans to unwittingly act as agents of an adversarial foreign power.” Avril Haines, deputy director of Columbia World Projects, struck a note of caution: “What's at stake when we talk about election security? Trust. The future of our democracy. The future of our country.” [Watch session »]

Can We Navigate Major Regulatory Transformations? Governments are passing legislation intended to protect privacy and Internet security around the world, but the implications of these regulations are in flux. Columbia law professor Tim Wu and Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures sparred over the utility of antitrust as an enforcement tool. Wilson said antitrust is simply “bad policy,” while Wu said that “there needs to be some sort of constitutional block to ensure companies are not getting too big. Companies are not going to be forced to cooperate in any other way.” [Watch session »]

Artificial Intelligence & Governance. The increasing use of AI in decisionmaking has wide-ranging consequences for us as individuals and for society as a whole. The success of AI is exciting, but its application and ubiquity raise numerous questions. “Some AI is personally impactful, like facial recognition, and some is not, like systems that predict weather,” said JoAnn Stonier, chief data officer for MasterCard. “Should they be treated the same by the law?” [Watch session »]

A lunchtime keynote discussion featured Dean Merit E. Janow of SIPA, John Battelle, and David Sanger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning national security correspondent for the New York Times and author of The Perfect Weapon, a book that examines how cyberconflict has changed the nature of global power. The trio discussed a variety of issues with particular attention on the next generation of wireless technology known as 5G. Will cyber competition between the United States and China lead to a “digital Berlin Wall,” as Sanger suggested? [Watch session »]

Global Governance and Cyber Conflict. In the absence of international law and agreed-upon norms of behavior, the evolution of technology, advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), and economic dependence and security are increasingly reliant on insecure systems. Laura DeNardis, a professor at American University, said there is no distinction between tech and non-tech companies in terms of data collection and the implications for governance: “All companies are tech companies now.” Angela McKay, senior director for cybersecurity policy and strategy at Microsoft, said "norms matter, but behavior matters more. We are all looking for a sufficiently stable ecosystem where you recognize that cyber is a consistently valid tool to be used when the law of armed conflict would be less effective." And Jason Healey offered a warning —once we fold in IoT and AI into daily life, we may start to see more critical damage from cyber attacks. [Watch session »]

A fireside chat on cybersecurity featured Lt. Gen. John Bansemer (retired), a longtime Air Force officer who served in a variety of cyber, space and intelligence positions, and Greg Rattray, director of global cyber partnerships and government strategy at JPMorganChase. Asked what help the private sector and academia can provide to the government with respect to cybersecurity, Bansemer said it needs policies and research on how to secure our networks and critical infrastructure. “Academia is going to teach us what the right policy is to solve for large displaced and disaffected populations which may lead to instability,” he said. [Watch session »]

The day ended with a discussion of Financial Stability in an Era of Growing Cyber Risk. Since the financial crisis of 2008, regulators have focused first on financial stability, but with the rise of sophisticated and complex technologies in the financial sector, cyber risks increasingly represent a systemic risk. “Global governance or crisis management structures do not exist like they do for financial crises,” said Jason Healey. “If you had to get heads of state together with serious technology and non-technology CEOs, there’s no structure to bring them together.” [Watch session »]