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The recent global espionage and surveillance affair sparked by the revelations of Edward Snowden showed just how much influence digitization and new media have on politics and democratic forms of government. PhD student Sylvio Henrique Neto is exploring exactly which interrelationships exist. A political scientist from Brazil, he is currently working at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin on a German Chancellor Fellowship for tomorrow’s leaders. He explains in our interview what he finds so fascinating about this subject and why he is currently conducting his research in Germany.
Sylvio, your research focuses on civil liberties, digital privacy, cybernetic power and sovereignty, and internet governance. What fascinates you about your research topic and what exactly is it about?
What fascinates me about my research topic is the possibility to study the links between political science and information technology, to research solutions and to understand complex scenarios in our digital age. The last few years have witnessed a surge in interest in cybernetic topics, especially concerning their not-so-neutral effects in political life. Cryptography, free software and technological autonomy have suddenly been recognized as playing a pivotal role in our democracies when it comes to protecting civil liberties, privacy and transparency. The most recent example is the massive digital surveillance scandal, which exposed how information technology can be used against our principles and values. In this instance, two countries in particular have emerged as a major focus of massive surveillance: Brazil and Germany. The discussion about the future of privacy and technological autonomy and sovereignty has become even more complex in many cases, giving rise to the project’s principal research question: which paths should Brazil and Germany take, and what issues should they cooperate on to reshape global internet politics so as to safeguard individual privacy and national sovereignty in the digital age?
Brazil and Germany already took it upon themselves to lead an international political coalition aimed at reclaiming the individual’s right to digital privacy at the United Nations. The first result of this cooperative coalition came in the form of a Brazilian/German diplomatic proposal entitled “Right to Privacy in the Digital Age” at the UN Human Rights Commission, a landmark in the area of digital privacy and Internet governance. Thus the main objective of the project is to acquire experience both at home and abroad with a view to identifying the spectrum of potential cooperation between Brazil and Germany on political issues concerning the defence of rights, values and interests in the digital age.
Why is your research so important not only in your field, but possibly also in other fields?
My German Chancellor project, alongside my PhD research at the University of São Paulo, seeks to bridge political science and information technology in an attempt to understand the relationship between them in a cyber-empowered democracy. My PhD provides the theoretical background which helps me re-examine conventional democratic theories during my Fellowship so as to understand the interplay between cryptography, cyber security, surveillance and privacy. The Fellowship itself is more about how we can apply these political science concepts and theories in policy and decision-making processes in order to acquire a deeper understanding about how this works in technological terms. In my view, this research is relevant not only because it brings together both areas in theory and practice in my discipline, but also because it makes public policy proposals and concrete suggestions to Germany and Brazil.
You are a German Chancellor Fellow. Why did you apply for the Fellowship? What are the most important opportunities offered by this Fellowship?
Besides its considerable flexibility, extensive support, innovative approach, international research network, family support and scope for personal and professional growth, I also very much appreciate the way in which Germany connects politics with scientific research, especially in the German Chancellor programme. This programme is an excellent example of such intelligent and sophisticated scientific foreign policy. Financed by the Federal Foreign Office, the main goal of the German Chancellor Fellowship is to promote research initiatives which connect German foreign policy with five countries: Brazil, China, India, Russia and the USA. With this in mind, the most important opportunity is the real possibility to research solutions and make concrete proposals to the German Chancellery based on scientific knowledge.
You are from Brazil. What prompted you to choose Germany? What characterizes the German research landscape?
Germany felt like a natural choice, though also an exciting challenge. It was a natural choice because the Brazilian and German scientific landscapes are deeply connected in many different ways. Worthy of mention in this context are a number of longstanding partnerships between recognized Brazilian research agencies such as CAPES, CNPq and FAPESP with Germany’s vibrant research ecosystem, especially the DAAD and Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (and so many others). These longstanding partnerships are widespread and welcome in the Brazilian scientific landscape on account of their positive results, intensive cooperation, shared values and prospective opportunities. It was challenging because of Germany’s high scientific standards and extremely internationalized and competitive environment.
Germany is already recognized internationally as having produced great philosophers and scientists in all fields. Even in this well-established position, Germany sets priorities and makes research and innovation one of its highest public policy goals. There is no doubt that such priorities have an extremely positive impact on the science and innovation landscape, for example by creating acclaimed international research networks, forums for scientific exchange, cutting-edge opportunities and risk-taking innovative programmes.
What do you like about researching and living in Germany? What are your longer-term goals for the future?
Germany has a really special culture, which makes living in the country a very intense experience. The research scene in Germany is characterized by highly engaged, lively and challenging scientific debates. There is a real feeling that science is as important as any other issue and that, whatever the crisis, scientific findings should be part of the solution. This is a core value to be found throughout German society. There are many exciting and fascinating opportunities here in Germany. My main career goal in connection with the Fellowship is to build upon the knowledge acquired during my Humboldtian experience. Once I finish my PhD in Brazil, I will first apply for a postdoc position, ideally in Germany. I would also like to develop my role as an intermediary between university and society, working and collaborating with governmental and non-governmental organizations and think-tanks, and thereby to develop public policy research concerning the Internet’s complex dynamics in society. All these professional opportunities will allow me to return to Brazil and make full use of all I have learned from the Humboldt Foundation and Germany’s vibrant scientific landscape.
Sylvio, thank you for the interview and good luck with your research.