A Global Panopticon – The Changing Role of International Organizations in the Information Age

The outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002-2003 and Swine Flu (H1N1) in 2009 captured a great deal of global attention. The swift spread of these diseases wreaked havoc, generated public hysteria, disrupted global trade and travel, and inflicted severe economic losses to countries, corporations, and individuals. Although affected states were required to report to the World Health Organization (WHO) events that may have constituted a public health emergency, many failed to do so. The WHO and the rest of the international community were therefore desperate for accurate, up-to-date information as to the nature of the pandemics, their spread in different countries, and treatment possibilities. The solution came from a somewhat surprising source-the internet. The first signs of both diseases were discovered by automated web crawlers that screened local media sources in multiple languages, looking for specific keywords. In the case of SARS, a web crawler reported to the WHO about the early signs of the disease more than three months before the international community became aware of it. In the case of Swine Flu, a web crawler was similarly responsible for unearthing early reports on the disease and triggering further inquiry by the WHO. Information that flew from the internet impelled the WHO to approach local health agencies and demand that they conduct thorough investigations into the outbreaks. The role played by the internet expanded even further after the initial discovery of the diseases. The worldwide spread of SARS and, in particular, Swine Flu was closely monitored online by global networks of scientists and volunteers who shared their experiences and tagged relevant data on interactive maps. As the Director-General of the WHO declared, “[f]or the first time in history, the international community could watch a pandemic unfold, and chart its evolution, in real time.” This Article argues that these technological developments are not just helpful for better disease detection and surveillance, but rather, they reflect a deeper, broader conceptual shift in state compliance with international law. Information technologies allow international organizations (IOs) to play an unprecedented, and so far overlooked, role in this respect. In particular, they transform one of the core functions of IOs in international relations: compliance monitoring.