Digital Sovereignty – An International and Individual Policy Challenge

© Antoine Schibler from Pexels

Since the Snowden revelations and the rise of “big tech” it has been evident that state, economic or even individual self-determination could be threatened. The concept of “digital sovereignty” is an expression of this concern and also mainly the framework for target concepts for the protection or restoration of the mentioned self-determination deficits.

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Three force fields of digital sovereignty

Julia Pohle from the Berlin Social Science Center identified three areas to which “digital sovereignty” can be understood as an answer:

  1. The global supremacy of a few private companies such as Amazon, Facebook or Google in digital infrastructures
  2. The extensive possibilities for digital data collection, analysis and control by primarily US intelligence agencies and their allies
  3. The normative framework of dominant states. For example, a very individualistic and techno-positivist understanding of business models and networks comes from the USA in particular. This is countered by a more authoritarian and centrally oriented network policy, represented above all by China and Russia, with rigid surveillance and control regimes in digital infrastructures.

Between autarchy and dependence

The talk of “digital sovereignty” is strongly context-dependent. In fact, in almost all contexts, digital sovereignty seems to mark a middle position between extremes. In terms of economic policy, it stands for a functioning market economy balance. Digital sovereignty here also means in the rejection of protectionism or economic isolation. From a position of digital sovereignty, a state would neither fundamentally exclude international providers nor make itself dependent on them in the design of its networks and infrastructures. The state and the economy should remain collectively capable of acting.

A similar concept applies to security policy although here autarchy tending goals are sought more clearly. Thus, the state must often be secured here, e.g. by promoting the development of trustworthy infrastructure or by freeing the administration from dependence on certain manufacturers and service providers.

Especially in Germany, there is also a further understanding of digital sovereignty. Citizens can therefore also develop their own digital sovereignty by using digital skills and the corresponding legal (protection) frameworks to expand the ability and the opportunity to self-determined and sovereign handling of devices and their own data.

Digital sovereignty in the mirror of non-European views

In the non-European area, demands for digital sovereignty are not met with approval. The United States for example, are particularly bothered by the regulatory wishes of other countries, including those of Europe. They (with the exception of the time of the Trump administration) have always had a line of minimized state interference, open standards, international interoperability and the widest possible economic freedom. From the US point of view, demands for digital sovereignty easily appear as an attack on the market power of major American corporations such as Meta or Alphabet.

For other non-European states, digital sovereignty usually means a concept of digital, economic and, above all, security policy’s ability to act, primarily aimed at autarchy. The concept of state-centered “Internet Sovereignty” originates from China, for example, in which the state watches over the rules of the internet as well as over the data of its citizens.

Although China’s efforts to spread its understanding of digital sovereignty internationally are inconsistent, the concept of local data storage is met with international interest. It encourages the storage of data in the country where it was generated.

Many African states are increasingly positioning themselves in favor of a state-centered understanding of digital sovereignty. The Chinese idea of local storage is also met with open ears in many African countries. It seems helpful to state leaders to advance state building, among other things, and of course appears at first glance as an anti-colonial model. 

European values: Digital sovereignty as the individual’s ability to act

German and European advocates of digital sovereignty also like to highlight the economic policy aspects. The EU has activated substantial funding for the development of key competencies and technologies. An example of this is the German-French project GAIA-X, which aims to develop a trustworthy platform for cloud providers as an alternative to American providers. In its conception certain values such as privacy, data protection, trustworthiness and transparency were on the forefront.

Digital sovereignty is also considered in the sense of consumer and participatory citizen sovereignty. The strengthening of digital skills, user rights and transparency is the way to get there.

The final justification of digital sovereignty through values such as personal fundamental rights, democracy and transparency is indeed a European peculiarity and a courageous response to the increasingly difficult world situation in terms of network policy. It seems to be the only one that can sustain the internet in the open and decentralized form that once made it strong. If this concept, which also respects individual sovereignty, were to prevail in dialogue with other non-European partner countries, it would probably be to the benefit of all.