Digital Sovereignty – a primer
20 Jul 2021
In the darkest recesses of the 2020-2021 winter lockdown, I did some odd things to pass the time. One of them was to indulge in childhood nostalgia – and this included firing up “The Lion King”. Aside from giving us some absolutely banging tracks (‘I just can’t wait to be king’ anyone?), it also introduced a generation to the concept of sovereignty:
“Look, Simba. Everything the light touches is our kingdom.”
This much-meme’d moment provides a clear outline of sovereignty – the power and authority of a state to govern itself or another state. But it’s in the hinterlands, the borders, the places where the light just about touches, that this concept becomes more nebulous.
The digital world has become one of those places. Great Firewall of China aside, digital boundaries feel porous. Facebook is American, but people from all over the world log into the platform and provide it with their data, which the company uses to enable businesses from other parts of the world to develop targeted advertising.
But those digital boundaries are hardening – and digital sovereignty is part of that process.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, describes digital sovereignty as, “the capability that Europe must have to make its own choices, based on its own values, respecting its own rules.” The stress on values and respect is revealing – the drive for digital sovereignty has emerged in the context of geopolitical tensions and disillusionment with the technology sector.
Firstly, geopolitics. As President, Donald Trump escalated competition between the US and China, and his willingness to deploy trade barriers led to a trade war that is continuing under current president Joe Biden. This dynamic, coupled with Trump’s estrangement from the EU and NATO, led to renewed calls for European “strategic autonomy”.
With the US and China aggressively weaponising trade and commerce, there’s a perception that Europe needs to independently defend its interests, nurture its growth and project its values. As a result, technology is now treated as a strategically significant sector for Europe.
Secondly, the Techlash. In Europe, attitudes towards technology have soured over the past decade. The Cambridge Analytica Scandal embodied the concerns of the Techlash: a few American technology companies have accumulated gargantuan quantities of money, data, and power without sufficient government oversight. Their services and products can deeply damage the social fabric in ways that were previously unanticipated. Europeans therefore need to unilaterally protect their citizens and societies against these harms – whether through regulation or nurturing homegrown, rule-abiding alternatives to these tech giants.
Europeans therefore need to unilaterally protect its citizens and societies against these harms – whether through regulation or by nurturing homegrown, rule-abiding alternatives to these tech giants.
Out of this context, digital sovereignty has emerged as a broad, contested concept. Governments believe they can carve out a distinct rule-making role while asserting the “European” values of human rights, privacy, and socially-conscious capitalism in a sector that has all too often ignored those values.
What’s coming next
Following GDPR’s success in setting enduring standards, the European Commission is now eyeing an Artificial Intelligence Act proposal which would classify AI deployments according to the risk they potentially pose, and subject these deployments to different requirements depending on that risk level.
Meanwhile, the UK Parliament is due to discuss the Online Harms Bill, which will combat the spread of illegal content online along with material that’s harmful but legal, by establishing an online statutory duty of care and requiring platforms police themselves. And the Digital Markets Unit (DMU) is looking into the lack of competition in the UK’s digital markets.
Digital sovereignty is a complex and evolving topic, meaning it’s essential for technology companies to keep on top of developing legislation. The EU’s AI Act proposal mentioned above, could circumscribe how businesses use much-hyped technologies like AI, such as banning the use of facial recognition systems except in cases deemed essential, for instance.
Unintended consequences and clear guardrails
The mainstream media is generally supportive of attempts to limit Big Tech’s power and to protect society against the worst consequences of its products. Yet, many journalists are also casting a sharp eye over EU and UK government action, wary of the clumsy interventions and unintended consequences that may follow. There’s an opportunity to influence the debate – as long as businesses link their arguments back to the principles at the heart of digital sovereignty: trust, privacy, competition, and equitable growth.
In the long term, digital sovereignty could simplify things for business. Implemented thoughtfully, legislation could help create more trust in technology amongst the public and provide clear guardrails for what is and is not allowed. That would help businesses to invest in innovation with more confidence, knowing that they’re no longer diving into murky waters. Or, to put it another way, seeing where the light touches should help Simba avoid the hyenas.