Written evidence submitted by RAND Europe (TFP0036)


What technologies are shifting power? What is the FCDO’s understanding of new technologies and their effect on the UK’s influence?

Democratising access to digital spaces, technologies and services has significantly increased the number of actors that are able to leverage technological advances for a widening range of purposes. As a result, technological innovation has provided significant opportunities for global governance through democratising access to knowledge and information, as well as enabling new linkages between different actors and communities worldwide. Increasing connectivity has, for example, provided new opportunities for democratic participation and the exercising of freedom of opinion and expression through online platforms, as well as exchange of best practices among civil society organisations and others working to foster human rights in a digital age. 

However, this democratising access has also posed significant hurdles that civil society, government and business have to navigate. For example:

In conjunction with wider political and socio-cultural trends, including declining social trust and increasing public uncertainty, technological change thus facilitates a context in which actors including the UK have to fundamentally reconsider established means for achieving influence. In this context, new and emerging technologies shape the character, dynamics and distribution of global power in various ways:

These various impacts of technological change create many adaptation challenges and introduce greater uncertainties regarding the adequacy of existing organisational structures, practices and ways of working. In the context of increasing pace and complexity of technological change, the FCDO should therefore build greater resilience and adaptability to this landscape, recognising that:

How can the FCDO engage with private technology companies to influence and promote the responsible development and use of data and new technologies?

As digitalisation and the maturing of emerging technologies advance, so does the imperative for the UK to engage with private sector actors on issues of key interest to the UK in the context of national security and prosperity as well as global governance. There are several potential priority areas for this engagement, each characterised by dilemmas and trade-offs between the harnessing of technological advances for public good and mitigating the potential risks stemming from the same utilisation of these technologies:

While the international community has historically relied on self-regulation by platforms and other private sector actors, it is increasingly recognised that the above-described dilemmas cannot be resolved or navigated through this mechanism alone. There is, however, ongoing debate over the standards and principles which should guide the interaction of states and global technology companies in a matter that allows emerging technologies to be harnessed effectively and in line with established international human rights frameworks. The FCDO will thus necessarily have to navigate a dynamic field in which perspectives and evidence on ‘what works’ continue to evolve. There are several overarching principles which the FCDO can implement in this context:  

Should the Government’s approach to meeting the challenges of technology nationalism and digital fragmentation be based on self-sufficiency, joining with allies or like-minded nations or supporting a coherent global framework?

With intensifying global power competition and efforts to centralise information and technology governance at the national level, the future global information environment may feature the emergence of the ‘splinternet’. This denotes a global internet architecture dominated by restrictive internet governance models driven by geopolitical conflict, and increasingly diverging perspectives on the norms and standards for internet governance and technology development. Further to the challenges this may pose for the human rights landscape and the UK’s ability to project and exert influence in the information space, this may reduce the UK’s technological edge over others or drive global innovation within reduced normative and ethical constraints, thus increasing the risk of wider societal harms.  

As these challenges evolve, the UK needs to consider whether to build self-sufficiency, collaborate with selected partners or foster global coherence depending on its own capabilities, priorities and perspectives on the ethics and human rights dimensions of technological innovation. These options may not be mutually exclusive, but rather pursued in a mutually reinforcing way on the basis of a comprehensive assessment of the costs, risks and benefits of different areas of UK action. In this sense, the FCDO should consider:

In considering the different options for sovereign action, international partnering or global initiatives, the FCDO will require a clear articulation of its ‘value proposition’ to different target audiences, including governments, international institutions and civil society organisations in various countries and regions of interest.[6] This should take into account potential areas of unique capability and expertise the FCDO as well as wider UK government and other organisations within the UK (incl. industry and academia) can offer.

It should be noted that increasing technology nationalism and digital fragmentation are not certain to materialise, and the FCDO can thus take proactive steps to reduce risks of a global ‘splinternet’ emerging in the future. Civil society engagement can serve as a bottom-up mechanism to strengthen the capacities of local actors to actively shape national policy and regulation. This could help to avoid or mitigate increasing restrictions on internet and technology access as well as provide a global monitoring and reporting mechanism on the impacts of technology nationalism and digital fragmentation.

How can the FCDO help build resilience in civil society, in Government, business and foreign relations against the threats posed by abuses of new technologies by state and non-state actors? Can the FCDO support trust-building networks?

Acting at the intersection of foreign relations and development, the FCDO is uniquely placed to influence international policy and practice, build trust, support capacity building initiatives, and contribute to resilience-building through innovation, both within the UK and globallyThe FCDO is also well-placed to recognise and assist in mitigating the potential negative impacts of rapid technological innovation, particularly those that inhibit the realisation and protection of human rights in a digital age. Building capacity both internally within the FCDO to navigate this rapidly changing context, as well as externally to strengthen institutional and civil society capacity in partner nations will allow the FCDO to assist in building resilient governance mechanisms and adaptable civil society partners around the globe.

To use capacity-building effectively and strategically, the FCDO will need to consider how its capabilities and expertise best align with the requirements of its target audience. This will require a nuanced understanding of the FCDO’s own knowledge, expertise, and capabilities, particularly unique capabilities and expertise held within the department and the wider UK government. Several additional principles should be considered:[7]

Finally, the FCDO should be able to capitalise on past successes and its global reputation to continue to build on established principles and good programming practices to maximise the impact, sustainability, effectiveness, and efficiency of its activities. Good practices such as comprehensive planning, risk assessment and evaluation and embedding knowledge-, skills-, and competence-transfer in capacity-building initiatives should serve to maximise learning and foster long-term ownership, trust, and resilience.


About RAND Europe

RAND Europe is a not-for-profit policy research organisation that helps to improve policy and decision making through independent research and analysis. RAND Europe’s work includes recently published or forthcoming studies for the UK and European governments, institutions, and other organisations on human rights in the digital age[8], technology and the future of cybercrime[9], and the role of emerging technologies in the context of border security[10], counter-disinformation[11] and defence.

For more information about RAND Europe’s research in this area, please contact:

Ruth Harris

Research Group Director – Defence, Security and Infrastructure

RAND Europe

Westbrook Centre, Milton Rd

Cambridge, CB41YG

United Kingdom










June 2021


[1] For a further discussion of these and other trends see Bellasio, Jacopo, Linda Slapakova, Fiona Quimbre, Sam Stockwell. 2021. ‘Human Rights in the Digital Age’. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation (forthcoming).

[2] The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has, for example, made increasing use of digital spaces including Twitter and Facebook to strategically amplify its narratives and sow divide among non-mandarin speaking communities. It has also leveraged TikTok and WeChat to appeal to anti-Western sentiments in different regions and extend censorship and surveillance systems to its diaspora. France has also used digital services (mostly Twitter, webpages and apps such as Ariane) to increase engagement with the French and foreign civil society, promote French culture and francophonie abroad, and advocate for democratic principles and freedom of expression.

[3] China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and more specifically its Digital Silk Road, is often highlighted as the most relevant example of telecommunications infrastructure-building being used as a means of creating new trade ecosystems, deepening existing trade relationships, and ultimately exercising and projecting influence overseas. However, this is not exclusive to the PRC Japan has, for instance, also incorporated telecommunications infrastructure building in its foreign policy when it launched its Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI) and Blue Dot Network (BDN) initiatives to foster economic relationships and counterbalance the influence of China in the Asia-Pacific.

[4] See Bellasio, Jacopo, Linda Slapakova, Luke Huxtable, James Black, Theodora Ogden. 2021. ‘Innovative Technologies Shaping the 2040 Battlefield’. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation (forthcoming).

[5] See Jennifer Kavanagh & Michael D. Rich. 2018. ‘Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life’. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2314.html

[6] For a more in-depth discussion of this concept, see Black, James, Richard Flint, Ruth Harris, Katerina Galai, Pauline Paille, Fiona Quimbre, Jess Plumridge. 2021. ‘Understand the Value of Defence: Towards a Defence Value Proposition for the UK’. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation (forthcoming).

[7] See Bellasio, Jacopo, Linda Slapakova, Fiona Quimbre, Sam Stockwell. 2021. ‘Human Rights in the Digital Age’. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation (forthcoming).

[8] https://www.rand.org/randeurope/research/projects/protecting-human-rights-in-the-digital-age-.html

[9] https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA137-1.html

[10] https://www.rand.org/pubs/external_publications/EP68583.html