Career envoy Casper Klynge has assimilated into the world of Silicon Valley, living in Palo Alto and managing his team of 20 who are dispersed across northern California, Copenhagen, and Beijing, similar to many chief executives of tech startups.
Except Klynge is a Danish diplomat who took up the post as the world’s first “tech ambassador” in August 2017. The idea for the role was actually borne out of a brainstorming session involving his younger colleagues who were searching for a new and exciting way for the Danish government to interact with the world.
“Diplomacy has always been about putting people into hot spots or at the center of transformation. And in today's world, the epicenter is Silicon Valley, Seoul, and Shenzhen,” he said.
‘It has actually changed the narrative’
Klynge, 46, took up the newly created role a few months before March 2018, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal imploded after news emerged that the political consulting firm illicitly harvested data from up to 87 million Facebook users. It was arguably the single biggest turning point for Facebook, which is now embroiled in controversies surrounding its decision not to fact-check political ads and blistering scrutiny surrounding Mark Zuckerberg’s ambitions to create its own digital wallet.
“We’re grateful to the big technology companies for the crisis they put in front of us in the last two years, because I rarely get the question anymore, ‘Why do we need a tech ambassador? What do you actually do?’ It has actually changed the narrative, the discussion and also the perception among ordinary people [regarding] what role can technology play?” Klynge told Yahoo Finance in an interview this week.
According to Klynge, a mere 42,000 Danes were affected during the Cambridge Analytica scandal (.05% of the entire set). But he says the actions of Silicon Valley are reverberating in his home country, especially when it comes to sentiment.
“If you ask people on the streets of Copenhagen, ‘How do you look at a digitally driven economy? How do you look at a technology-driven future?’ they will be slightly less positive and less optimistic than they were two years ago, because of the leaks of personal data that we've seen the last couple of years. So I think in that sense, it's a more mature discussion we’re having today,” he said.
“If you want me to be a little less diplomatic, I think the honeymoon is over. Very few people today would say that these companies that are not too far away from where we're sitting right now, that they only work for the better good of humanity, that they're just neutral platforms, that they're they're just bringing technology that connects people. I think that was how we saw it two, three, four, five years ago. Today, we have a better understanding that there are fantastic opportunities, fantastic aspects of new technology. But there's also a dark side that we need to be very, very attentive to and make sure it doesn't break our democracies and that it doesn't hurt you and me,” he added.
Klynge acknowledges that as diplomat from a tiny nation of 5.8 million people, it’s easy for tech leaders to brush him aside, especially when there’s overwhelming domestic scrutiny of big tech — and presidential candidates who are making the issue a core tenet of their 2020 platforms.
“The value proposition we bring to the table is we are a very small, open economy. We have a population that is pro-globalization, pro-technology. And inside the European Union, we are also one of the countries that are sort of pro a light tough on regulation. We like technology platforms, we have no problems with companies making a ton of money, we just want to make sure that we protect what is essential, and then let the market basically do the rest,” he said.
Referring to Europe’s general data protection regulation (GDPR), he said it’s in U.S. tech companies’ best interest to liaise with like-minded government officials.
“We also want to make sure that we can convey messages to the companies about the necessity to protect consumers, or to protect your personal data that is indeed your personal data and cannot be sold off to third parties without your consent. We will see governments but also civil society, media, but also ordinary citizens increasingly holding companies to account and therefore it's also commercially a good idea to collaborate with governments that are interested in steering in the right way in a balanced way forward on technology,” he said.
Though Klynge describes the process as an uphill battle, several tech leaders have found it beneficial to connect with him. “If I want to compare notes on technology issues, he’s one of the best-informed people possible,” Microsoft President Brad Smith told The New York Times.
Ambassadorship roles last for four years, and with over half of his tenure over, it remains to be seen whether the position will be renewed.
Melody Hahm is a senior correspondent at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.