Digital Sovereignty – A Problem Outline

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In a recently published study by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik), Daniel Voelsen presents two scenarios for the future of global Internet governance. In the „Global Oligopolies“ scenario, he assumes that three satellite constellations will be set up to receive the Internet worldwide – two of them under the leadership of the USA and Great Britain, one as a Chinese project. This would lead to an „enormous concentration of economic power“ and would also have political consequences.(translated from Voelsen 2021, 6):

The availability of services is oriented toward political lines of conflict. As a result, the trend toward fragmentation of the Internet is intensifying. The operators of the constellations and the states behind them can control exactly how data is exchanged within and between the respective systems. In this scenario, the states of Europe, and thus also Germany, are hardly in a position to align the use of digital infrastructures with their own political interests and ideas of order.

This is one of the scenarios that touches on the „digital sovereignty“ of states. Not only authoritarian countries, but also liberal democracies are increasingly looking for mechanisms to control the Internet and are trying to transfer the concept of sovereignty to the digital space (Stadnik 2021, 147). One driver of this approach is the fear of losing control, and satellite Internet represents a further escalation within this struggle for sovereignty in the network. The counter design to the expansive efforts of some powerful countries is the retreat of others into the local. Always included in this is the following wish (translated from Tesch 2016, 195):

The state gains sovereign control over the Internet in its own country and protects citizens and IT infrastructure from access by other states. The idea of „digital sovereignty“ is closely linked to the hope of comprehensive security for one’s own citizens, the domestic economy and the state itself.

But what does „digital sovereignty“ actually mean and how can this concept be reconciled with the classic idea of sovereignty? Which actors play a role? And how do they interact in a global context? First, it is worth taking a look at states as entities. These have „recognizable and fixed borders, or at least they claim a firmly delineated space“ (translated from Krell/Schlotter 2017, 23) and state sovereignty is thought of in terms of a specific territory. State borders mark legal and territorial units, which in turn are oriented to the physical-geographical borders of other states (Kukkula/Ristolainen 2018). State sovereignty is understood as the independence of a state from other states (external sovereignty) and its superior power to command all subjects within its own territory (internal sovereignty) (Haric/Grüblbauer 2016, 169).

Crucial to all of these meanings is a geographical specification, that is, the restriction of sovereignty to a specific territory, which is seen as a functional prerequisite for authority to be exercised effectively.
Julia Pohle and Thorsten Thiel

(Pohle/Thiel 2020, 3)

A second look must focus on the Internet, cyberspace or the cybersphere. And this shows that a new geopolitical space is increasingly establishing itself here – a „space“ that is radically different from the familiar physical-geographical spaces (Hong/Goodnight 2020, 10 and Kukkula/Ristolainen 2018). It is primarily because of this novel shape that the Internet is perceived by state leaders as an increasing threat to existing structures. Digital concerns are therefore experiencing ever greater politicization. In particular, because the new demands placed on the political system „cannot or cannot immediately be met by generally binding decision-making,“ but at the same time there is consensus within the political system among relevant actors that decisions must be made (Czerwick 2011, 149 and Veddern 2016, 334). The question arose: Is the Internet governable, and if so, how?

Ostensibly, a neoliberal-oriented hegemony of the U.S. – especially U.S. intelligence agencies and corporations – on the Internet and the rise of technocratic China are often at issue, and „cyberspace is increasingly seen as a place where nation-states compete for power“ (Mueller 2017, 11). In recent years, this has led to loud demands to regulate the global flow of information. Companies should increasingly store user data in the local jurisdiction. There have also been calls for government agencies and other users to rely more on local email and cloud providers rather than foreign companies and services (ibid., 12). The overarching issue here is who can participate in the concrete policy-making on the network and what clear rules accompany the decisions within each arena (Santaniello 2021, 22ff.).

Basically, we can deduce from this: The field of Internet governance is a new, increasingly discursive conflict zone between a wide variety of actors at the state and non-state levels. It is a challenge for all involved, especially because of the imbalance between its global focus and the more locally oriented political and legal institutions that must find answers to it. Compared to the all-encompassing Internet, the structure of states is territorially fragmented and focused on sovereignty. However, digital transformation and the global technical infrastructure challenge this sovereignty (Pohle/Thiel 2020, 2). Internet communication and digital technology in general are geographically unbound. IT standards and production structures are increasingly globalized and have a network character (Mueller 2017, 123).

There is a fundamental misalignment between a unified cyberspace and the far more fragmented legal and institutional mechanisms humans have devised to govern themselves.

(ebd., 11)

Digital sovereignty as a concept should therefore be detached from the purely territorial level and understood more broadly (Friedrich/Bisa 2016, 1). Sovereignty was closely linked to the emergence of nation states in the modern era, but in „a globalized and in every respect closely networked world, the old nation-state concept of sovereignty has long been outdated. […] In order to fulfill the users‘ justified desire for security and protection of their data, it is much more necessary to overcome the nation-state thinking of the 20th century and to look for supranational agreements“ (translated from Tesch 2016, 196). In any case, digital sovereignty cannot only be explained and implemented via the territorial understanding of sovereign nation states, but has many other facets.

In the political debate, however, the question is repeatedly raised – especially by authoritarian states – as to how and whether new practices for drawing boundaries can be established within the digital space and which institutions, structures and activities can be drawn into this. How can digital sovereignty – understood as digital self-determination – be protected? (Werden 2016, 35) Is it possible and necessary to redefine borders in the actually borderless digital sphere? Can and should national segments of cyberspace be distinguished from others? (Kukkula/Ristolainen 2018) And how to deal with the fact that currently the governance format of the Internet has a multistakeholder focus and increasingly includes non-state actors such as academics, activists, entrepreneurs, and techies? The latter model has been criticized, especially by emerging states, as supporting the power and privileges of some large corporations and dominant countries while marginalizing others (Haggart/Scholte/Tusikov 2021, 3).

Alongside states, companies in particular are another important player in the debate about Internet governance, and they, too, have long since ceased to operate only in localized areas. A wave of „techno-feudalism“ is currently replacing capitalism, as large technology companies often aim to monopolize entire markets (Jelinek 2021, 16). Digital assets are largely privately owned and thus subject to economic action logic. Profiles on users are created, owned, and exploited by multinational, globalized corporations and states. We are in the transition from the modern to the digital age, which forces us to rethink the traditional understanding of sovereignty. There is consensus to this extent: modern-analog sovereignty is still necessary, but increasingly insufficient. Contemporary digital sovereignty is needed to enable effective state control through appropriate regulation (Floridi 2020, 372).

Even though „digital sovereignty“ is also increasingly being prioritized as a political and strategic goal in the European Union and Western countries, the discussion here is also characterized by the fear that the isolationist actions of authoritarian states such as China, Russia and Iran will lead to a fragmentation or balkanization of the Internet into various „splinternets. This is mainly due to different understandings of what digital sovereignty actually means in concrete terms and what options for action and future horizons can be derived from it. However, the fear of a fragmentation of the network into many national subnetworks goes in the wrong direction and distracts from the question of whether there can be a reorientation in the digital space with greater control of communication on the Internet via the competent national edges. In this regard, it is argued that the Internet has always been fragmented in the broader sense, since it consists of many autonomous systems, and that in the narrower sense it is in turn globally positioned due to the binding to IP addresses (Mueller 2017, 17 and 21).

By invoking the term fragmentation, some critics of data sovereignty often make it sound as if their opponents are proposing to eliminate connectivity among networks or cut their country off from the Internet entirely. This is rarely if ever the case, even when we are talking about so-called ‚national Internets‘.

(ibid., 29)

All these aspects will be discussed in this blog. The focus will be on the European Union and the countries China, Russia and Iran.

You might also be interested in:


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