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The role of trust in digital diplomacy

Published on 01 August 2016
Updated on 05 April 2024

Users’ trust in different aspects of the Internet ecosystem has been in decline following the Snowden revelations and other recent developments. While trust is subjective and contextual, it is increasingly in focus as Internet governance stakeholders contend with ways to restore users’ trust.

The role of trust in digital policy was the subject of a recent webinar, which I co-hosted with Diplo’s cybersecurity expert Vladimir Radunović. In it, I shared the findings of my Master’s research, including how trust is perceived and defined in Internet governance organisations. I also shared data findings from an applied ethics case study of how trust is operationalised and perceived by members of Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), non-for-profit organisations that manage critical global resources. The webinar was the first in a series Diplo Alumni Hub initiatives.

When we speak about trust, the difference between it and trustworthiness plays an important role in digital policy vocabulary, as it contrasts the type of trust or distrust we place in individuals, institutions, or the Internet ecosystem. While trustworthiness can be perceived as a system for measuring the accountability of organisations, it seems to revolve around earned trust, usually including the three trust indicators – competence, reliability, and honesty – as opposed to trust that has been placed but not proven.

Even in the expression ‘I trust you to be trustworthy’, we see confirmation of Russell Hardin’s[1] point of view, that as individuals, we place trust in people whom we believe have a strong reason to act in our best interests, whereas trustworthiness is a social virtue that cannot be reduced to strategic self-interest.

During the webinar, participants asked many thoughtful questions about, for example, the difference between confidence and trust, showing that it is a concept that is not really well understood in the digital policy realm. We spoke about the commercial aspects of trust and trustworthiness and how the interests of private sector stakeholders, in addition to those of governments, have a huge impact on trust.

However, in the many efforts made to restore trust and trustworthiness within the Internet governance ecosystem and among stakeholders, rectifying user’s underlying distrust is connected to remedying many Internet security issues, including the Internet’s physical, protocol, and application layers as well as digital policies.

As to various approaches for developing digital policies, it is useful to understand the separation of ethics and normative guidelines on trust for digital policies, i.e., how things should be if we were totally rational, self-less beings, from a psychological and a subjective empiricist level and how trust is currently perceived in reality, particularly where there is a lack of information, a persistence of irrational beliefs, personal interests, and an unequal power relationships among stakeholders.

I believe that my framework of trust indicators can contribute to the worldwide current debate on trust in Internet governance.

Desiree Zeljka Miloshevic is Senior Public Policy and International Affairs Advisor in Europe for Afilias. In 2015, she completed her Master in Contemporary Diplomacy with the University of Malta and DiploFoundation, with distinction.


[1] Author of the 2002 book Trust and Trustworthiness

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