Digital sovereignty in the EU – A brief overview

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The NSA scandal in 2013 spurred the political discussion on „Digital Sovereignty“ in the European Union (Pohlmann et al 2014, 2 and Misterek 2017, 20).

Under the umbrella term of digital sovereignty, the discussion initially focused on technical options for countering surveillance. Overall, the proposals ranged from rerouting data flows („Schengen routing“) to the construction of new submarine cables and the expansion of communications encryption to mandatory storage of data in the country where it was „generated“.

(translated from Misterek 2017, 20)

Parallel to the political discussion, research has also dealt more intensively with this topic. In their analyses of the European Union’s approach, various authors point to three levels of investigation: the individual or citizen, the company and the state (Pohl 2016, 11). Basically, a broad concept of sovereignty is taken as a basis, which can also be summarized with the keyword „autonomy“. In this respect, it is decoupled from the original concept of sovereignty which has been applied to territorial references.

Recommendations regarding state digital sovereignty tend to be directed against a European foreclosure strategy (e.g. Werden 2016, 48; Tesch 2016, 200 and Veddern 2016, 335). Rather, effective data protection for citizens, the promotion of tech companies that are independent of the US economy, and a digital infrastructure that is as transparent as possible are favored. (Tesch 2016, 195).

According to Santaniello, the European Union’s approach in the early years of the Internet can be described as „digital neoliberalism“. It was primarily the private sector that was supposed to make decisions. Policies were largely limited to initiatives to deregulate the market, protect copyright, and encourage private investment. The rationale was an economic one, and there was a rejection of government control. Decision-making within privately guided policy venues such as the Internet Coporation for Assigned Names and Numbers was preferred.

Based on the U.S. example, this model has been prevalent within the European Union since the 1990s – which is particularly evident in the „Digital Agenda for Europe“ (2010) and the „Digital Single Market Strategy“ (2015) (Santaniello 2021, 24f.). For some years now, however – Santaniello is referring here to a speech by French President Emanuel Macron to the 2018 Internet Governance Forum – there seems to have been a trend toward a strategy of „digital sovereigntism“ or „digital constitutionalism.“

What both approaches have in common is that they call for more regulation by the state and propagate a high level of enforcement. In other words, these strategies aim at binding legal norms for nation states and international agreements (ibid., 25 ff.).

Overall, the European Union’s perspective on the Internet and the sovereignty associated with it is a democratic-liberal one, and the focus is on ideas of freedom (of expression), fundamental rights and cooperation. The discussion centers on a digital transformation based on European values such as sustainability, security, trust and fairness (Jelinek 2021, 1 and 5) . Above all, it is not a matter of replacing national modern-analog sovereignty, but of supplementing it with a supranational, contemporary-digital one.

In this context, the actors are particularly concerned with the question of whether popular sovereignty can be transferred to a model of supranational sovereignty and how (Floridi 2020, 375). IThe European debate focuses more on the autonomous individual and the self-determination of the citizen than on the state –

these claims focus on the autonomy of citizens in their roles as employees, consumers, and users of digital technologies and services. An interesting aspect of this category is the departure from a state-centered understanding of sovereignty.
Julia Pohle and Thorsten Thiel

(Pohle/Thiel 2020, 11f.)

You might also be interested in:


Floridi, Luciano. „The Fight for Digital Sovereignty: What It Is, and Why It Matters, Especially for the EU.“ In: Philosophy & Technology 33, 2020, 369-378.

Jelinek, Thorsten. „Mapping Europe’s Digital Sovereignty Strategy: The EU-China-US Triangle.“ < > 2021. (29.05.2021).

Misterek, Fock. „Digitale Souveränität – Technikutopien und Gestaltungsansprüche demokratischer Politik.“ < > 2017. (30.04. 2021).

Pohl, Hartmut. „Der bürgerliche Traum von digitaler Souveränität – Technische Bemerkungen zur völligen Unsicherheit digitaler Kommunikation.“ In: Friedrichsen, Mike; Bisa, Peter-J. (Hrsg.). Digitale Souveränität: Vertrauen in der Netzwerkgesellschaft. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2016, 9 – 22.

Pohle, Julia; Thiel, Thorsten. „Digital sovereignty.“ < > 2020. (10.06.2021).

Pohlmann, Norbert; Sparenberg, Michael; Siromaschenko, Illya; Kilden, Kilian. „Secure communication and digital sovereignty in Europe.“ In: Reimer, Helmut; Pohlmann, Norbert; Schneider, Wolfgang (Hrsg.). ISSE 2014 Securing Electronic Business Processes: Highlights of the Information Security Solutions Europe 2014 Conference. Wiesbaden: Springer Vieweg, 2014, 155 – 169.

Santaniello, Mauro. „From governance denial to state regulation – A controvert-based typology of internet governance models.“ In: Haggart, Blayne; Tusikov, Natasha; Scholte, Jan Aart (Hrsg.). Power and Authority in Internet Governance – Return of the State? London und New York: Routledge, 2021, 15 – 36.

Tesch, Henrik. „Jagd auf eine Illusion.“ In: Friedrichsen, Mike; Bisa, Peter-J. (Hrsg.). Digitale Souveränität: Vertrauen in der Netzwerkgesellschaft. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2016,195 – 204.

Veddern, Michael. „Digitale Souveränität und europäische Öffentlichkeit … oder warum es eines neuen Zeitalters der europäischen Aufklärung bedarf.“ In: Friedrichsen, Mike; Bisa, Peter-J. (Hrsg.). Digitale Souveränität: Vertrauen in der Netzwerkgesellschaft. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2016, 333 – 349.

Werden, Stefan. „Digitale Souveränität, ein Orientierungsversuch.“ In: Friedrichsen, Mike; Bisa, Peter-J. (Hrsg.). Digitale Souveränität: Vertrauen in der Netzwerkgesellschaft. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2016, 35 – 51.

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