Espreso. Global

Taiwan, Ukraine closely connected in work to combat digital expansion of authoritarianism - Taiwanese Minister Audrey Tang

22 January, 2023 Sunday

In an interview with Espreso TV, Taiwan's Digital Minister Audrey Tang noted that democracies use digital technologies to make the state transparent for its people, while autocracies use technology to make people transparent for the state.

Our first question is about Taiwan's assistance to Ukraine. It is not only about humanitarian aid to the settlements affected by the aggression, but also about investments in the future of the Ukrainian state and society. Recently, one of Lviv's lyceums received a variety of educational equipment from the Taiwanese Ministry of Digital Affairs. How important are such investments in education in general, and what do you think the education of the future will look like?

Thank you for the question. In Taiwan we have a saying,  “Wherever there is school there is hope”. Indeed schools are centers of digital resilience and national revitalization. So by equipping teachers and students with not just the equipment but the know-how to thrive in a digital era, we are sowing the seeds for inclusive prosperity. I'm myself a junior high school dropout, but I work with all kinds of schools together to learn a lot to build better tomorrow not just for myself but also for my community of free software and open source developers. Because of that we understand the power of education to build better tomorrow, and politics should never stand in the way of real cooperation. It's perfectly logical that during this process schools should play a frontline role in ensuring that the people’s thirst for knowledge and learning is quenched.

The last few weeks have marked our first acquaintance with the capabilities of artificial intelligence. We see that AI is able to write textbooks, essays, compositions, and everything that was important for people is now absolutely exhaustive in terms of machine capabilities. What will education look like and how can we make sure that in the future people use their own intelligence, and not artificial one?

 Before I joined the Cabinet in 2016, I was a member of the Basic Education Curriculum Committee in Taiwan and we debated long and frequently about this exact problem. So because of this we decided to change the basic education curriculum indeed. In the new curriculum we changed literacy, which is about consumption, about memorizing and so on, into competence. So instead of digital or media literacy, we now talk about media and digital competence, because literacy is when you read or memorize, whereas competence is when you co-create, when you make new narratives, new products with one another. 

Indeed as you said, automation in not just AI, but also search engines really have rendered almost obsolete the education assistance requirement for people to remember things. And so I think it's very important that we see the tools in education like in Taiwan now. Each and every school children have a tablet or when they get older - laptops in their classes to use them not just as a consumption device, but as a co-creation device, and it's my hope that with my Ministry’s contributions along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the schools, to lyceum Grono and more in the future we can help each other to become bastions of enlightenment and preparedness for the bright postwar future for Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government is very proud of its achievements in digital technologies, primarily the Digital State. However, I remember well how former Estonian President, Kersti Kaljulaid, when asked about Ukraine's achievements in the digital sphere, said that it is not only the form of the digital state that is important, but also its content. How can we make sure that the digital state helps democracy, not authoritarianism?

 I've been aware of the great work from the Ukrainian Civic Technologies Community since the Prozoro days almost 10 years ago now, and I congratulate the Diia success not just domestically but I've also learned that USAID is now helping people who want something like Diia around the world to receive support in terms of Diia  technologies. So a job really well done indeed. 

Democracies use digital technologies to make the state transparent to its people while autocracies use technologies to make the people transparent to the state, and these are very different directions. Last April I signed a Declaration For the Future of the Internet with more than 60 Partners worldwide along with the US, Ukraine, Lithuania and many more, and in the Declaration we are democracies. So it was very similar idea with jointly pledge to promote the openness and interoperability of the Internet in a pluralistic, not just in an inclusive way and to use this multi-state holder governance approach, the top-down coercive approach, to shape the Internet into a resilient structure while strengthening mutual trust and the protection of freedom and human rights. These shared values are an excellent example of borderless collaboration, and as Taiwan and Ukraine are both signatories, I think we are democratic partners bound by the deep seated respect for freedom, democracy, human rights, rule of law and international order. So we look forward to cooperating closely and strengthening digital resilience for all democracies.

I want to talk about the experience of information warfare. You said that Taiwan is taking over the Ukrainian way of conducting information warfare against Russia. Even prior to the war, Ukrainians' information resistance was not very successful, perhaps also because a huge number of our citizens know Russian very well. However, Taiwan is similar to Ukraine in this regard, because all Taiwanese people understand Chinese well, so they can also be subject to Chinese information attacks. Or are the people of Taiwan, with their vast democratic experience, less susceptible to information attacks?

 Indeed we've had a very long history fighting autocracies and authoritarian expansionism, so consistently we put a really key priority in strengthening resilience of not just our critical infrastructure, but also our journalism, our newsmakers sector so that we can together overcome online harms and also increase participation in democratic processes. That's partly because in Taiwan, democracy is a relatively new thing. We first started the direct presidential election in 1996, that's already after the wide web. When designing our democracy, we put a lot of emphasis on not just once every four years or every two years voting, but also on participatory budgeting and referendums, Sandbox applications, presidential hackathon and much of continuous, deliberative democracy. And the more people participate in these forums, the more they become inoculated against the propaganda from the autocracies. Because propaganda was always about that democracy only leads to chaos and only authoritarian models can respond to societal challenges but by practicing democracy everybody can see what democracy can deliver. 

Speaking of cyberattacks, which have become an important part of the war that Russia is waging against Ukraine, do you see any real opportunities for civilized states to protect themselves from information influence?

I think in this regard Taiwan and Ukraine are really in the same boat, that's to say in the front line and standing firm against all the attacks. Last August, a couple weeks before Taiwan's MODA, Ministry of Digital Affairs was founded, we were subject to one of the largest denial of service attacks ever. Actually 23 times in a day compared to the previous peak, so this is like a huge amount of attacks. But it's not just about cyber attacks, they are in tandem with disinformation, manipulation of information, trying to portray as I mentioned that democracy only leads to chaos. And we successfully counter against engaging the Web 3 community, using InterPlanetary File System or IPFS, so people, for instance, in Ukraine or anywhere really in the world can donate a spare hard disk and spare bandwidth to help our Ministries back up our website site,  keeping it accessible. And this is not luck, but the help from the cryptocurrency community to Ukraine in the beginning of the war and throughout the war. Engaging this borderless community, enhancing the cyber security while developing the necessary cryptographic collaboration to allow us, for example, for me to be recognized as a e-resident of Ukraine, and you vice versa. I think this is very important both economically and also cyber security wise so that we do not have to reinvent a wheel, but can instead jointly defend against attacks on our common infrastructure.

Please tell us what was the most important thing for the development of digital technologies in Taiwan? How did it work and what is the role of the government in it?

Since I was a young child I've always known that the government of Taiwan insists that Broadband is a human right. And this is important because through digital infrastructure we reduce the cost per private sector and the social sector to come up with new technologies. Nowadays our network infrastructure allows anyone to broadcast live from Jade Mountain, Taiwan's highest peak, so it also saves our freedom and openness of expression.

The other thing that the state does is that it recognizes and subsidizes the digital public spaces but without governmental control. The largest Taiwanese online bulletin board system for 25 years now, the foreign PTT, which is like Reddit in the U.S, is entirely run within the Tower Academic Network. Its free software is governed by its participants, indeed by a student club in International Power University. So while the operation cost is subsidized by the university and therefore, by the state, it is not that the state has any say in the freedom of speech or censorship or surveillance when it comes to that form. But because it has no advertisers and no shareholders, it doesn't serve the interest of surveillance capitalism either. So it is on PTT, for example, that we before anyone really in the world detected early 2020, indeed a day before January 1st 2020, that there is something going on in Wuhan and therefore, led to our early pandemic response. So a digital public space that is treated as an infrastructure subsidized but not controlled by the state I think is also important in addition to Broadband as a human right.

Taiwan and Ukraine have something in common: the transition from a one-party monopoly to a classical democracy. How successful was Taiwan's transition to such a possibility of choice?

 You highlighted a very important aspect of Taiwanese politics in that we are fundamentally a trans-cultural and pluralistic polity. We have 20 national languages including sign language. Now we recognize emerging quality, the first in Asia. And so I think the political culture here is as much as it is about party competition, then it is also about finding good enough consensus for things that people can live with despite our really very different backgrounds. I understand that many people are portrayed on Taiwan along with other East Asian countries as the kind of homogeneous Confucius worshiping culture, but it is not like that in Taiwan. We enjoy absolute freedom in terms of religion, both of my grandparents are Catholic but my dad is a bit of a Taoist and so on. And so I think that the conversation and transcultural co-creation between the different backgrounds shape the contemporary Taiwanese culture and therefore, it's politics.

How do you assess the intensification of relations between Ukraine and Taiwan last year? Can we talk about any development and what should the mechanism of relations between our countries look like in the future?

Although Taiwan does not have a formal diplomatic relationship with Ukraine yet, our government wasted no time in complementing the country-wide donation drive by joining international sanctions against Russia. Taiwan and Ukraine stand shoulder to shoulder in defending democracy and this is what bonds us together, and our latest collaboration at the Taiwan Can Help Free the Future campaign just started and the sky truly is the limit.

We often talk about the lessons of the Russian-Ukrainian war. What was such a lesson for you?

When the MODA was in its planning phases before the war, I think we planned it to be a motor of digital transformation in the commercial sector. But when the situation happened and we've seen the unprovoked brutal invasion from Russia to Ukraine, we immediately adapted our roadmap so that the ministry now is about digital resilience for all, including, for example, over this year and next year 700 non-geostationary satellite receivers in Taiwan and also some abroad, some in fixed places, some in the moving vehicles. And you probably already know this by first-hand experience, but without a high bandwidth communication to the world during a time of crisis the world would not know what's actually happening, and propaganda, this information, deep fake synthetic videos and so on will probably take over the international media landscape. So keeping communication open I think is the point that we have learned from your experience, and we also learned to work with multiple public сloud providers so we engage with Microsoft Asia, Amazon, Google like everyone and we are also engaging with multiple satellite providers not to put our eggs into one basket so to speak

Speaking about the situation in the region where Taiwan is located, how do you assess the level of danger? How likely is a real military conflict?

Just like earthquake prevention, instead of trying to predict exactly when an earthquake would occur, we need to build our buildings and plan our cities with resilience in mind. And so with this I think this clarity does not mean escalation, so we're certainly not escalating. And it seems currently that it is not the state of tension it used to be last August. But  we've received a lot of attention and conversations with the geopolitical allies in the Indo-Pacific regions, but also outside the region, people who are connected by shared values in cyber security, in protecting freedom of speech online, overcoming online harm and so on outside of the Indo-pacific region. Because the way we live and work and co-create in an open society now it's not about a neighborhood of Japan's political distance, but a neighborhood of shared values. And I think in this we share very closely with Ukraine our values in making sure that the digital sphere remains free from the expansionism of autocracies. So currently the tension is not that high, we're not escalating, but we are making all the preparations needed in case earthquakes natural or unnatural destroy our submarine cables.

Ukrainian society has been trying to reach an understanding with Russian society for quite a long time, and we can say that these attempts have not resulted in anything real. Does the dialogue between China and Taiwan help  to come to terms with each other?

As you have demonstrated, I think only with a unity against authoritarian expansionism can you truly negotiate and talk as equals. In Taiwan we are now realizing this more than ever. So as I mentioned, strategic clarity is not escalation. And we stand ready to have conversations about cultural, scientific, technological counter pandemic helping the transparency of the counter pandemic efforts, about mitigating climate crisis and many other topics. To me the most personal topic I care about is protecting journalism and protecting freedom of speech both online and also during offline gatherings. So on these topics I believe our own experience in democratizing from a more authoritarian indeed martial law era configuration of society can provide some help, some inspiration perhaps, to the reformers within authoritarian regimes.

Regarding the development of society in the digital era, what do you see as the greatest prospects and the greatest risks?

The number one risk is certainly polarization. If social media is configured as anti-social media, where it rewards and amplifies the retweets, the shares of the messages that drive people toward hatred, towards mutual disbelief toward apathy about democratic processes and so on, then it actually amplifies authoritarianism. On the other hand, as I mentioned, in the digital public spaces we hold ourselves to account as government officials, the rough consensus co-created by people's petitions, by the deliberative democratic town halls, etc. Then the same digital spaces may be repurposed into something that is a pro-social social media. So the danger is polarization, and to overcome the danger, we need to commit to build the digital equivalent of town halls, of public parks, of university campuses, of museums, libraries and national parks online, so as to promote pro-social conversations furthering democracy. This is every bit as important as the public instructions and infrastructures in other more concrete areas.

We often talk about the changing generations of voters. If you look at young Taiwanese, how different is their view of the world from that of their predecessors, and how has digital technology affected it?

I think intergenerational solidarity is very important. The young people, who are digital natives, are like ambassadors helping the digital immigrants or such as me, as I migrated when I was 12, to be acquainted with the digital world, which by default knows no borders. Indeed people who are aligned value-wise despite their time zone differences readily identify one another and start new projects like Wikipedia and so on that breaks the previous preconceptions of what was possible for working with essentially people who you have never met face to face across a large distance. This worldwide co-creation is native to the digital natives, and we're very happy that in Taiwan through lifelong education, through reverse mentorship by young people to the older people in the Cabinet, we've been able to share the wisdom of the elderly generation with the agility of the younger generation together

What would you say to young Ukrainians who live in a very modern world and suddenly find themselves in the midst of this feudal era war waged by Russia?

I would say that your neighbors are the people who share the same values as you do. And with the communication infrastructure, with the laptops that Taiwan can help provide, I wish that you think beyond the immediate neighborhood which is as you said captured by a feudal era war, but instead or in addition to that, think about your neighborhood in the world, in a worldwide community that really cares about what's happening in Ukraine. And your unique experience of both strength and vulnerability is of tremendous importance to the communities worldwide who would join you in co-creation for a better future together.

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