decisive role of data flow on the world stage | MIT News

In 2016, Meicen Sun came to a deep realization: “The control of digital information will be at the heart of all major issues and major controversies in politics”. A graduate student in the last year of studies specializing in international security and the political economy of technology, Sun strongly recalls the emergence of the Internet “as a force for democratization, openness, equalization”, contributing to give birth to the Arab Spring. . But she was also deeply struck when countries in the Middle East and beyond restricted internet access to stifle citizens’ efforts to speak out and mobilize freely.

During her undergraduate and graduate studies, which focused on China and its growing global role, Sun became convinced that digital constraints initially intended to prevent the free flow of ideas also had huge economic impacts and croissants.

“With an exceptionally high mobile Internet adoption rate and the explosion of indigenous digital applications, China’s digital economy was booming, helping to boost the country’s economic growth and international competitiveness,” said said Sun. “Yet at the same time, the country has maintained the most tightly controlled Internet ecosystem in the world.”

Sun set out to explore this apparent paradox in his thesis. His research to date has resulted in new findings and troubling questions.

“Through its control of the Internet, China has in fact provided protectionist advantages to its own national data-intensive sectors,” she said. “If there is an advantage in enforcing control of the Internet, given the absence of effective international regulations, does this give authoritarian states an advantage in commerce and national competitiveness?” Following this thread, Sun asks, “What could this mean for the future of democracy as the world increasingly relies on digital technology?” “

Protect or innovate

At the start of his graduate program, courses in Capitalism, Technology, and Public Policy, Sun explains, “cemented for me the idea of ​​data as a factor of production and the importance of the flow of data. cross-border information to make a country innovative “. This central postulate serves as a springboard for Sun’s doctoral studies.

In a series of interconnected research papers using China as the primary case, she examines the double-edged nature of the Internet’s limits. “They grant protectionist advantages to national data-intensive sectors on the Internet, on the one hand, but on the other hand, act as a longer-term deterrent potential for the country’s ability to innovate.”

To continue his doctoral project, advised by political science professor Kenneth Oye, Sun is pulling data from a multitude of sources, including a website that has been regularly testing web domain accessibility from China since 2011. This for him helps determine when and to what extent Internet scanning occurs. It can then compare this information to publicly available records of the expansion or contraction of data-intensive industrial sectors, allowing it to correlate Internet control with the performance of an industry.

Sun has also compiled data sets on enterprise-level revenue, scientific citations, and patents that allow it to measure aspects of China’s innovation culture. To analyze her data, she relies on quantitative and qualitative methods, including one co-developed by her thesis co-supervisor, associate professor of political science In Song Kim. Its initial analysis suggests that Internet control prevents academics from accessing knowledge available on foreign websites, and that if maintained, such control could take a toll on China’s economy over time. .

Of particular concern is the possibility that the economic success that stems from tight internet controls, as exemplified by the Chinese model, may encourage the rise of similar practices among emerging or evolving states.

“The grim implication of my research is that without international regulations on restrictions on information flow, democracies will be at a disadvantage compared to autocracies,” she says. “No matter how short-term or narrow these restrictions are, they confer tangible benefits on certain economic sectors. “

Data, politics and economics

Sun quickly began his studies on China and its role in the world. She was born in Xiamen, a Chinese coastal city across from Taiwan, to college parents who cultivated her interest in international politics. “My father was constantly talking to me about world affairs, and he was passionate about foreign policy,” Sun says.

Eager for education and a broader view of the world, Sun got a scholarship at age 15 to go to school in Singapore. “While this experience exposed me to a variety of new ideas and social customs, I felt the urge to travel even further and meet people with different backgrounds and perspectives from my own,” says -she.

Sun attended Princeton University where, after two years of staying in her “comfort zone” – writing and directing plays and composing music for them – she underwent a process of intellectual transition. Political science classes opened a window to a larger landscape to which it had long been connected: China’s behavior as a rising power and the changing global landscape.

She received her undergraduate degree in politics and then a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Pennsylvania, where she focused on China-US relations and China’s participation in international institutions. She was about to complete a PhD at Penn when, Sun says, “I became confident in my perception that digital technology, and in particular information sharing, was becoming critically important factors in international politics. , and I felt a strong desire to devote my graduate studies, and even my career, to the study of these subjects ”,

Confident that the issues she hoped could best be addressed through an interdisciplinary approach with those working on similar issues, Sun resumed her doctoral program at MIT.

“State of mind of the maker”

Sun hopes his doctoral research will prove useful to governments, policymakers, and business leaders. “There are a lot of developing states actively looking between data governance and development models for their own countries,” she says. “My conclusions on the pros and cons of restrictions on information flow should be of interest to the leaders of these venues, as well as to trade negotiators and others concerned with global data governance and what would be the rules of the game. fair for digital commerce. “

Sun has engaged directly with policy and industry experts through its fellowships with the World Economic Forum and the Pacific Forum. And she touched on questions that touch on politics outside of her immediate research: Sun is collaborating with her co-thesis supervisor, Professor Yasheng Huang of MIT Sloan, on a study of the political economy of artificial intelligence in China for the MIT Future Work Working Group.

This year, while writing her thesis, Sun will be based at Georgetown University, where she holds a Undergraduate Fellowship in the Mortara Center Global Political Economy Project. In Washington, she will continue her journey to become a “policy-minded scholar, a thinker with an action mindset, whose findings affect things that happen in the world.”


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