Democratizing digital sovereignty: an impossible task?

Julia Rone

The concept of digital sovereignty has increasingly gained traction in the last decade. A study by the Canadian scholars Stephan Couture and Sophie Toupin in the ProQuest database has shown that while the term appeared only 6 times in general publications before 2008, it was used almost 240 times between 2015-2018. As every new trendy term, “digital sovereignty” has been used in a variety of fields in multiple often conflicting ways. It has been “mobilized by a diversity of actors, from heads of states to indigenous scholars, to grassroots movements, and anarchist-oriented “tech collectives,” with very diverse conceptualizations, to promote goals as diverse as state protectionism, multistakeholder Internet governance or protection against state surveillance”.

Within the EU, Germany has been a champion of “digital sovereignty” — promoted in domestic discourse as a panacea, a magic solution that can at the same time increase the competitiveness of German digital industries, allow individuals to control their data and give power to the state to manage vulnerabilities in critical infrastructures. As Daniel Lambach and Kai Opperman have found, German domestic players have used the term in very vague ways, which has made it easier to organize coalitions around it to apply for funding or push for particular policies. Furthermore, the German Federal Foreign Office has made considerable efforts to promote the term in European policy debates. It has been more cautious at the international scene, where the US has promoted an open Internet (which completely suits its economic and geopolitical interests, one must add) and has been very suspicious of notions of digital sovereignty, associated with Chinese and Russian doctrines above all. Attempting to avoid qualifications of sovereignty as necessarily authoritarian, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed in a 2018 speech at the Internet Governance Forum a vision of the return of the democratic state in Internet governance, as different from both the Chinese model of control and the Californian model of private self-regulation. This unfortunately turned out to be easier said than done.

What all of this comes to show is that beyond the fact that more and more political and economic players talk about “digital sovereignty”, the term itself is up for grabs and there is no single accepted meaning for it. This might seem confusing but I argue it is liberating since it allows us to imagine digital sovereignty as how we want it to be rather than encountering it as a stable, ossified reality. Drawing on a recent discussion on conflicts of sovereignty in the European Union, I claim that discussions about digital sovereignty have been dominated by the same tension as more general discussions on sovereignty – namely the tension between national and supranational sovereignty. Yet, as Brack, Crespy and Coman convincingly argue, the more important sovereignty conflicts in recent European Union politics have in fact been between the people and parliaments, as bearers of democratic sovereignty, on the one hand, and executives at both the national and supranational level, on the other. The demand for “real democracy now” that informed the Spanish Indignados protests reverberated strongly across Europe and in a decade of protests against both austerity and free trade protesters and civil society alike made strong claims for democratic deepening. Sovereignty is ultimately bound with the question of “who rules” and since the French Revolution in Europe the answer to this question at least normatively has been “the people”. Of course, how do “the people” rule and who constitutes “the people” are questions that have sparked both theoretical and practical, sometimes extremely violent, debates over centuries. Yet, the democratic impulse behind the contemporary notion of sovereignty remains there and has become increasingly prominent in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis in which the insulation of markets from democratic control has become painfully visible.

What is remarkable is that none of these debates on sovereignty as, ultimately, democratic sovereignty has reached the field of digital policy. Talk about digital sovereignty in policy circles has often presupposed either an authoritarian omnipotent state — as evidenced in Russian and Chinese doctrines of digital sovereignty — or a democratic state but where all decisions are made by the executive, as in Macron’s vision of the ‘return of the state’ in Internet policy. Yet, almost all interesting issues of Internet regulation are issues that deserve a proper democratic debate and participation. States such as France attempting to regulate disinformation without even a basic consultation with citizens have rightly been accused of censorship and stifling political speech.

Who can decide what constitutes disinformation, hate speech or online harms? There is no easy answer to this question but certainly greater democratic involvement and discussion in decisions about silencing political messages would be appropriate. This democratic involvement can take the form of parliamentary debates, hearing and resolutions. But it can also take the form of debates at democratic neighbourhood assemblies or organized mini-publics events. It can take place at the European level with more involvement of the European Parliament and innovative uses of so-far ‘blunt’ instruments such as online public consultations or the European Citizen Initiative. Or it can take place at the national level, with parliaments even of small EU member states building up their capacity to monitor and debate Internet policy proposals. National citizens can also get involved in debates on Internet policy through petitions, referenda, and public consultations. Such type of initiatives will not only promote awareness about specific digital policies but will also increase their legitimacy and potentially their effectiveness if citizens have a sense of “ownership” with regard to new laws and regulations and have taken place in coining them.

Some of this might sound utopian. Some of it might sound painstakingly banal and obvious. But the truth is that while our democracies are struggling with the challenges posed by big tech, a lot of proposals for regulation have been shaped by the presence and power of private companies themselves or have been put forward by illiberal leaders with authoritarian tendencies. In such a context, demands for more digital democratic sovereignty could emancipate us from excessive private and executive power and allow us to reimagine digital content, data and infrastructures as something that is collectively owned and governed.

The early years of the Internet were marked by the techno-deterministic promise that digital tech would democratise politics. What happened instead was the immense concentration of power and influence in the hands of a few tech giants. The solution to this is not to take power from the private companies and give it back to powerful states acting as Big Brothers but instead to democratize both. We can use democracy as a technology, or what the ancient Greeks would call techne, to make both private corporations and states more open, participative and accountable. This is certainly not what Putin, Macron or Merkel would mean when they talk about digital sovereignty. But it is something that we as citizens should push for. Is it possible to democratize digital sovereignty? Or is such a vision bound to end up as the toothless reality of an occasional public consultation whose results decision makers ignore? This is ultimately a political question not a conceptual one. The notion of “digital sovereignty” is up for grabs. So is our democratic future.