Last updated: It’s imperative we keep our digital borders open

It’s imperative we keep our digital borders open


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There aren’t many walls and fences in the digital world. The Great Firewall of China is one of them, but it’s an exception rather than the rule. The grand trend, over the past few decades, is towards increased digital interconnectivity between all parts of the globe. I don’t think that statement is in any way controversial.

For most of those last few decades, the physical world has been following suit – both metaphorically (more dialogue, better international relations) and literally (the Berlin Wall, Belfast’s peace lines, and Beirut’s green line have all eroded). Walls come down, and communication and commerce go up.

But in Europe in the last year or two, that trend has reversed. Countries are re-building the fences that were torn down in very recent history.

Here in Britain, the most divisive referendum in a generation saw the population vote to leave the European Union entirely.

This sudden change in direction is creating a conflict between the physical and digital worlds.

Digital borders: Why keeping them open is critical to the future

For years we’ve been talking about the digital world shaping the physical world, but suddenly the roles have been reversed and the physical world is shaping the digital. Walls and fences  between countries mean that digital goods, despite their intangible nature, don’t flow so smoothly across borders.

That’s a problem for those of us whose livelihoods depend on these flows, but the problem is bigger than that. For the next generation, growing up now, digital is the default – it’s as much a part of their lives as the physical. They depend on it, in ways we all will do soon, to an extent that we often don’t realize.

Swedish music-streaming giant Spotify couldn’t have existed without open digital borders. Nor could Finland’s mobile gaming titans Supercell and Rovio, or Amsterdam’s fintech behemoth Adyen. To make sure this kind of entrepreneurship and innovation can continue, we need to ensure that our our digital borders are kept wide open. We need to work to ensure that the politics behind Brexit — which was ultimately driven by a massive failure of customer service — isn’t going to reverse the progress we’ve made over the last decades in internationalizing communication, innovation and commerce.

I’m optimistic. I believe that with smart political thinking we can preserve the key advantages of globalization while dialing back the worst of the negative effects. But to do so we’ll need to gather ideas from around the whole globe. So let’s limit the digital borders we erect, keep our ears open, and listen to the best ideas out there.

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