The New Cold War is Coming – the Internet is the Battlefield Insights from Maëlle Gavet, Christophe Duthoit, and Hubert Joly


The Sciences Po American Foundation welcomed alumna Maëlle Gavet, in conversation with Christophe Duthoit, for “The New Cold War is Coming – the Internet is the Battlefield,” the third installment of the Alumni Webinar Series. Hubert Joly,  senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School and the former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Best Buy Co., Inc concluded the session.

One of the tech industry’s brightest stars, Maëlle Gavet has been named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, one of Fortune’s 40 Under 40, one of the Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company and was fifth among Time magazine’s List of the Top 25 ‘Female Techpreneurs.’ Most recently Gavet was Chief Operating Officer at real estate platform Compass, valued at over $6bn. She has spoken regularly at the leading technology industry events and her writing has appeared in Wired, the Harvard Business Review, the World Economic Forum, Fast Company and Fortune magazine. Gavet’s book, Trampled by Unicorns: Big Tech’s Empathy Problem and How to Fix It, was released on September 29. Christophe Duthoit is currently Senior Partner & Managing Director with Boston Consulting Group. Over his 30+ year career, Duthoit has advised software and IT services clients on matters of strategy, performance, M&A, PMI and change. He holds significant BCG leadership in addition to several non-executive board roles.

Introducing this ‘new cold war,’ Gavet described increasing tensions between the U.S. and China, ongoing for the last 4-5 years yet flaring in the last 6-8 months, resulting in a new geopolitical cold war that is being fought on the internet. Despite the pressures between the U.S. and China occurring on multiple different fronts, “the internet” Gavet says, “is crystallizing a lot of the tensions.” The governments of the world are all starting to realize the scale of the security risk that the consumer internet poses and “the influence it has on the minds and hearts of their citizens.” Gavet is quick to point out that the cold war is more than just a business competition between tech companies. Despite her beliefs in the importance of the free market, she acknowledges that healthy business competition requires everyone to play by the same rules, but this cold war “comes down to two fundamentally different value systems, which have very different conceptions of civil liberties.” 

When asked for her recommendations for governments, Gavet centers in on the topic of data and privacy regulation. She warns against the idea that limiting the ability of U.S. or European companies to gather unlimited amounts of data is bowing down to China, citing a need to remember principles and “really reflect on what it would mean for us in the West as a society to become like China” in order to maintain a context of strong civil rights. Concretely, Gavet recommends starting with establishing standards for data collection, storage, and usage and ensuring that these standards are backed by strong enforcement mechanisms. Next, she calls for better algorithmic transparency to allow governments or a neutral third policy to have access to code and data sets to audit for bias. Gavet believes that the best results will be achieved if Big Tech can take a little more accountability and drive a lot of these measures themselves. To address China directly, she advocates for significantly stricter regulation around the transfer of technology, people, and information. 

Faced with this cold war, Duthoit poses the all-important question “How do we win?” To win the information war, Gavet believes the U.S. must prevent China and Russia from having undue influence over its democracy. This will require implementing new standards, fighting misinformation, making Big Tech more accountable, and setting universal standards not just for U.S companies, but for any company wanting to do business on U.S. territory. The biggest question, Gavet adds, is: what is the end game? “My expectation” she says, “is that we are going to move towards a more fragmented and polarized internet, and the question is: how many poles?” On the role of Europe specifically, Gavet insists that the world has always been a much better place when the U.S. and Europe have been aligned and working together. 

Gavet closed the discussion with a hopeful outlook for the future. “Tech is really in its infancy if one talks about AI and machine learning, which are really the next wave of technology that is going to impact the way tech operates,” she says. “But they’re barely learning to crawl, so we have plenty of time to get there. We just have to want to be there.” 

Hubert Joly offered the audience a few concluding remarks on how to be a leader in the digital age. Joly’s upcoming book, The Heart of Business: Leadership Principles for the Next Era of Capitalism, will be published on May 4, 2021 by Harvard Business Review Press. Joly advises leaders to “make peace with the fact that the world is on fire” in order to take action. He believes that business can be a force for good, and that the purpose of the corporation is to contribute to the common good. “It’s an opportunity and a requirement, in fact, for businesses to be a force for good,” he adds. On the subject of empathy, Joly describes a purposeful and empathetic leader as someone who is clear about their individual purpose and about the purposes of people around them. “Whether the company is 100 people or one million” he says, “makes no difference, because it’s one individual at a time and it’s one empathetic relationship at a time.”

The next installment of the Alumni Webinar Series will feature Anastasia Colosimo in conversation with Adam Gopnik on the subject of religion and democracy. The webinar will take place on October 20 at 3:00PM EST, and you can RSVP here

Watch the webinar.

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