Digital Sovereignty: what it means and why governments consider data and digital technologies strategic infrastructure

5 min

Call it the geopolitics of digital technologies or the awareness that we must participate in the ongoing competition for technological leadership between the U.S. and China. The fact is that the European Commission is reviewing its policies around the strategic importance of digital technologies and data. Let’s find out together how.

The vision of the European Commission

The turning points from the European Commission about the importance of data and digital technologies are various. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in the State of the European Union (SOTEU) 2022, announced a push to create a new fund for European sovereignty: “I will push to create a new European Sovereignty Fund. Let’s make sure that the future of the industry is made in Europe.” The push focuses, among other points, on digital and data as elements of strategic focus along with cybersecurity, cloud, edge, etc. For more background, read “A European Sovereignty Fund for an industry Made in Europe.

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton also outlined three inseparable pillars for digital sovereignty: computational power, control over data, and secure connectivity.

Even the French presidency announced it in The Building Europe’s Digital Sovereignty conference to take stock of recent progress on the continent, initiate discussions and create momentum to continue building Europe’s digital sovereignty and show how the European Union can take charge of its destiny in the digital age. All to defend its values and economic interests and ensure its autonomy.

If that does not mean you’re thinking about something strategic, please tell me what it can be.

What is Digital Sovereignty and how will it change our lives?

It is all part of the Digital Strategy, which the Commission has been working on for some time. Europe’s Digital Decade initiative targets 2030 as the year when a human-centric and sustainable vision for the digital society should materialize to empower citizens and businesses.

Another pivotal element of the strategy is the desire to reduce the technological lag between the U.S. and China, as there is a strong realization that we cannot maximize our potential in digital leadership. With thousands of experts, money, and capabilities, we are always trailing other nations that dominate the scene.

The need to raise the level of attention to cybersecurity to a strategic one is another piece of the puzzle that can only be addressed with specific skills and by developing a domestic market that matches our competitors.

The looming post-digital era

In my opinion, there is also a significant element: the incoming of the post-digital era. Let me explain.

Over the past decade, we have used digital as a welcome innovation to change how we relate to others, conduct business and connect to institutions. The pervasiveness of the Internet, the emergence of social media, the different ways we receive information, and so many other habits have been changed through this innovation.

But digital is becoming customary, usual; we are getting used to it as we did over time with electricity and tap water: we use it daily, but we no longer notice its presence. We only suffer its eventual absence due to technical problems, for example.

When we no longer notice the presence of digital but suffer its absence, we can claim to have entered the post-digital era. An era where social, cultural, and economic changes we are tasting today will become our daily bread.

The need to understand Digital Sovereignty

Beyond institutional motivations and future visions, as a technician, I need to dive into the details of what we mean by digital sovereignty. Only at the end of the article will we make general remarks on the whole.

Let’s start right away by dividing digital sovereignty into two primary areas:

  • Sovereignty over data
  • Sovereignty over technologies

The growing importance of data as instructions for AI

Personal data privacy issues aside, we need to start considering data as pivotal elements in the decision-making process of the software algorithms invading our lives as citizens. Over time, data from simple aspects of storing information have become instructions for algorithms afferent to the Artificial Intelligence paradigm, which uses them to learn how to perform its functions.

Unlike traditional software – coded to execute a sequence of instructions in deterministic mode – AI is programmed to learn how to perform operations based on prior training with data, in jargon: the training dataset.

Hence, data is no longer just information intelligible to human beings but becomes instruction for software that will dominate the post-digital era. This is already enough to determine protective actions as part of the technological heritage of the near future.

Cloud centrality as a potential weakness

Another element raising further data control issues is the proliferation of cloud computing. By creating a social media account or signing up for a newsletter, we confer our data, which will be stored on the platform. In most cases, the storage will refer to a cloud infrastructure.

Often the machines are not installed in the same country where the user resides but in a geographically distant data center. This creates the condition whereby our data is no longer managed in our territory but in a foreign region with alarming consequences in case of severe geopolitical events such as, for example, a war or the breakdown of geopolitical alliances.

If we look closely at the problem, we also note how transferring training datasets for AI algorithms to other nations provides them a competitive advantage that we should retain. For example, a company collecting production data – to optimize production and improve efficiency to increase competitiveness – could have these advantages blown away if the country in which the cloud infrastructure resides issues a data protection regulation in favor of resident companies.

In the coming post-digital era, the concept of digital sovereignty will become increasingly common, allowing rules to be applied to data and technologies. Share on X

The need to regulate the WHERE – WHO – HOW

Therefore, it becomes crucial to consider WHERE data is stored, WHO can have access to it, and HOW through appropriate regulation. This means protecting the country’s future assets, which are no longer just power lines, railways, water pipes, etc., but also data with attached infrastructure, which are becoming increasingly strategic to a country.

Exercising sovereignty over data does not mean limiting shared progress but instead well-regulating a phenomenon that could become uncontrollable if not managed. This is already happening: according to research by the World Economic Forum, 92% of data from the West is hosted in the United States.

The pair with technological sovereignty

Again, according to earlier research, no European companies are in the Top 20 global technology brands. That doesn’t mean that we in Europe cannot innovate, develop new patents, or manage the roots of technology. It only means that we don’t do it as it needs to be done. This is because we do not exercise the right amount of sovereignty over exponential technologies, which gives advantages to the competitiveness of the economic system in general.

Here, then, is where we should begin to ask ourselves:

  • WHERE is the technology designed, implemented, and made resilient?
  • WHO designed, developed, and operates the technology?
  • HOW can technology be reserved or mandated by law?

Because there are things, such as cybersecurity, that cannot be left to others in their advancement as strategic technologies.

Our digital destiny is also linked to technology control

The ability to control and determine our digital future depends on how we implement digital sovereignty: data + technology.

Too much control given to too few nations could prove a boomerang in the future. The limited ability to choose in the digital technology market could breed dependence, as has been happening in recent months with gas because of the war in Ukraine.

Geopolitical alliances and global collaboration are indispensable elements in a healthy and inclusive international growth policy, but we must never forget their downside.

Preserving a certain amount of autonomy in areas changing our society, economy, and institutions is a good idea, and does not challenge geopolitical alliances. It would, however, allow us to safeguard our technological independence for present and future generations.

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