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Never Mind Digital Sovereignty, Let’s Talk Digital Territory

This is my introductory statement for tonight’s panel discussion on the „Politics of (Dis)Connection“. [EDIT: The event had to be cancelled. I will let you know once a new date has been scheduled.]

In this input I want to talk about digital sovereignty, a very popular term, particularly from a European perspective. I want to make three points in this statement: 1) Digital sovereignty is useful for politics but bad for policy, 2) the EU and member states‘ governments use digital sovereignty to articulate a position vis-à-vis a threatening digitalisation, and 3) I’d much rather talk about digital territory than digital sovereignty to capture some of the changes and tensions.

Critique

As I’ve said numerous times, digital sovereignty is not a very helpful term (see my articles with Kai Oppermann and Linda Monsees). It means different things for different people. For the EU, it means regulating internet platforms, strengthening economic competitiveness for digital as well as traditional industries, or improving citizen’s media literacy. For Russia and China, it means making sure the people don’t topple the regime. I acknowledge that there is a relevant literature on indigenous data sovereignty but I’m taking a state-centric perspective here.

Digital sovereignty is a useful term in politics to mobilize different constituencies and unite them behind a badly defined slogan. At the same time, it is analytically weak and unhelpful in terms of guiding actual policy. Again, this is not to argue that we should not talk about sovereignty and the digital. My point is rather that current discussions revolving around the digital sovereignty of the EU or European states have significant weaknesses. But you can talk about sovereignty where sovereignty is actually at stake.

However, for most issues that are subsumed under the digital sovereignty agenda, I would much rather use different, more precise terminologies, such as:

  • Regulation & Jurisdiction: How do states make sure that companies follow laws? How are global standards made? Who has legal standing to enforce rules?
  • Autonomy: Who has what kind of capacity to make decisions? Inhowfar are they dependent on other actors in decision-making?
  • Authority: Who is empowered to make what kind of decision? And how is such authority legitimized?
  • Responsibility: Whose task is it to provide what to whom? What should be standards for behavior on and with regard to cyberspace? I would like to see more discussion about this in particular as the internet is becoming an ever more integral part of critical infrastructures.

Sovereignty conflates all of these issues into a badly defined mix and lathers it in unhelpful associations. The above are things I’d much rather talk about when it comes to the governance of the internet. But before I do that, I need to acknowledge that the discourse exists for a reason.

The Normative Hegemony about the Internet is Fraying

The driver of the European discussion about digital sovereignty is a disappointment how the internet has developed. This shift has been particularly pronounced in Europe, I would argue – China and Russia always had different visions of what the internet is and how it should be governed.

In very simplistic terms, in the 1990s and 2000s, the internet as a site of promise still worked. Optimistic narratives were not singular but predominant. Europe tended to follow the hegemonic US position that the freedom of the web must be defended against state encroachment. In the 2010s, this changed. The internet is now seen as a source of social and political problems, from hate speech and law-breaking on social media to mass data collection and surveillance by corporations and foreign intelligence agencies. The continuing frustrations of being unable to regulate the internet also fed into the overall impression that social order must be defended against the excesses of the web. In short, the European viewpoint of what the internet means has changed. This also encompasses a changed view of the appropriate role of the state, from repressive surveillance apparatus to protector.

This ties into a perception that digital technology has become a site of geopolitical struggle. Narratives of a Sino-US „tech war“ are becoming more influential and I consider digital sovereignty to be an attempt to articulate a European position in the face of this challenge. In sum, I understand why we are talking so much about digital sovereignty even though I would rather not. I have no illusions that the political discourse can still be shifted but analytically we can do better.

Digital Territory Rather Than Digital sovereignty

I prefer to think of the regulatory battles over the internet in terms of territory. In political science, we may still be a bit too enamored of a state-centered view of territory (John Agnew’s 1994 diagnosis of a „territorial trap“ is still correct), but if we shift towards a broader understanding, as the term is used in geography, it becomes really useful. Territories are bounded spaces of control – that’s it. They are not predetermined but socially constructed – or rather, techno-socially constructed, embodied, and performed.

I have introduced a taxonomy of territorial practices (most recently, here). For cyberspace, three are particularly important:

  1. Reification – Territories must be identified and treated as a social fact.
  2. Communication of boundaries – Territories rest on a demarcation of inside/outside.
  3. Regular displays of power – Territories must be ruled, otherwise they are merely spaces.

Importantly, as I have argued here, territories can be created by communities of users, by corporations, and by states – literally by anyone operating on the internet. For users, I have done some work on subreddits to illustrate how they use territory as a means of maintaining community. The territorialization by states, so often invoked in the internet fragmentation debate, is a concern. States haven’t managed to break the internet so far but signs are not exactly pointing in an encouraging direction.

But of the three, I think we should be more concerned about corporate territorialization, which receives less attention, at least in political science and international relations, the academic communities that I’m most familiar with. Platforms have successfully brought back the walled garden model. Social media platforms have monopolized user-generated content from the blogosphere (although let’s see what happens with Twitter and Meta). The „ecosystem“ model is no less harmful; while its boundaries are less obvious, lock-in has the same effects.

Following Francesca Musiani, thinking about territory opens discussions how material infrastructures prefigure certain territories or how territories are embedded into technologies. It allows inquiries into the tensions between a territorial politics and the network character of the internet as well as how the two shape each other. I would much rather talk about these things than have another digital sovereignty discussion.

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