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The Conceptual Arbitrariness of Digital Sovereignty

I wrote a commentary on one of my favorite subjects over at Theorieblog, the blog of the Political Theory Section of the German Association for Political Science. They are running a series of posts on sovereignty at the moment. This is the English translation of my post.

In digital policy debates in Germany, Europe and the world, the term „digital sovereignty“ has become popular since the early to mid-2010s. In German-language discourse, digital sovereignty means – roughly – the ability to act, resilience, self-determination and/or autonomy in digital contexts of the state, society, private companies or citizens.

However, in concrete terms this can mean anything: Germany needs digital sovereignty to protect its citizens from data-hungry US platform companies, companies need digital sovereignty to further develop their business models in digital capitalism and to remain at the spearhead of technological development, or Europe protects its digital sovereignty by locating chip factories. It is necessary to improve the digital sovereignty of users through media literacy, and open source software is quasi-inherently sovereign, despite all the contradictions between the hierarchical core of sovereignty and the decentralized nature of open source projects. In short, it is neither clear what exactly sovereignty means, nor whose sovereignty is at stake. „Digital sovereignty“ is a label, not a statement.

Conceptual Arbitrariness

The German debate is thus characterized by a high degree of conceptual arbitrariness, as I have worked out in an article with Kai Oppermann. By comparing 63 policy documents, we were able to identify seven narratives of digital sovereignty that are represented to varying degrees in the digital policy discourse, from the economic prosperity narrative to administrative digitization as an act of digital sovereignty. Our conclusion: It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!

The conceptual emptiness of digital sovereignty makes it an ideal projection surface for policy entrepreneurs from different communities. It was also striking how almost no one (apart from a few critics from civil society) was against digital sovereignty. And how could anyone? „Sovereignty“ has experienced a broad renaissance in the transition to post-globalisation over the last decade. Digital sovereignty „works“, but not in a substantive way but mainly as a discursive symbol for organizing political coalitions. As a guideline for policy formulation, it remains too vague and strategies for pursuing digital sovereignty remain mostly unspecific.

What Does Being Sovereign on the Internet Mean?

Academic texts, especially from political theory and law, are aware of this problem and have done much to deconstruct the political rhetoric. But in my view, the research literature also still takes far too much at face value the claim that those who speak of digital sovereignty are really concerned with sovereignty. In this respect, it is not surprising to find references to Jean Bodin in many relevant texts.

This understanding of sovereignty in the sense of legal authority is, of course, a very classical one and is certainly relevant to some problematic situations of the digital. For example, when it comes to the prosecution of rights violations (threats, hate speech, anti-constitutional statements, pornography) on internet platforms, the question of which state has jurisdiction over them is of central importance. The same applies to the taxation of e-commerce or the protection of critical infrastructures against cyber attacks. In such cases, to speak of sovereignty in digital networks is at least not absurd, even if certain conceptual difficulties arise because of the territorial form of the digital.

…It Depends What You Mean by „Sovereign“

But unfortunately, the use of the term does not stop there, because clarifying legal authority is not the only motivation of digital sovereignty. Three other purposes and goals are at least as important. First, digital sovereignty is seen as a means to strengthen economic competitiveness. The European economy is seen as threateningly dependent on technologically leading oligopolies from the USA and China. Through innovation and industrial policies, economic impulses are to be set for strengthening the European digital economy, but also for the digital transformation of other economic sectors („Industrie 4.0“).

Secondly, digital sovereignty is seen as indispensable not only for the European economy, but also for any kind of European social model, which is endangered by unbridled Silicon Valley capitalism, disinformation campaigns and populism. Digital sovereignty here refers to the attempt to make citizens and states more resilient to such influences.

And thirdly, there is also a geopolitical thrust to the debate. The EU and Germany are observing with concern the concentration of digital power in US corporations and Chinese companies, which are more or less directly equated with the respective governments. Particularly in light of the volatile transatlantic relations during the Trump presidency, Europe fears being caught between a rock and a hard place. Digital sovereignty here means articulating its own, third way. These four concerns – legal authority, economy, society and geopolitics – are synergistically interwoven by digital sovereignty advocates, so that digital sovereignty ultimately seems like a panacea.

Other Terms Would be Preferable…

But is it even advisable to speak of sovereignty in view of this conceptual confusion? Thorsten Thiel has raised justified concerns about this:

„The attempt to make sovereignty the common denominator of state policy, economic policy and civil society concerns and to always think in terms of the big picture – the danger to democracy and ‚our‘ values – ultimately promotes above all the establishment of control structures and counteracts the idea of democracy“ (p. 71).

Indeed, discourses of sovereignty – no matter how much one redefines the term – always stir the ghosts of centralized, hierarchical control. Conceptually, I would also prefer terms like „digital autonomy“ or „capacity“ (or territory) to sovereignty. With „autonomy“, the focus would be more on the avoidance or conscious management of dependency relationships. With „capacity“, the focus would be on agency. Both would be more specific than the more comprehensive and confusing concept of sovereignty. This could help to disentangle the complex web of „digital sovereignty“ and free it from the state reference of the concept of sovereignty.

…But We Are not Getting a More Rational Debate

However, I have little hope that the discourse of sovereignty can be transformed into a more rational discussion about dependencies and capacities in the digital transformation. „Digital sovereignty“ is a political discourse, not an academic one, which is very functional for many actors – as a projection surface and as a discursive symbol around which political coalitions can be constructed. It is too late for attempts at redefinition from the academic side. Nevertheless, it is possible and useful to criticize the term and its use. In public and social media discussions, there is an interest in scientific input, especially from the civil society side. While official and economic actors are too dependent on the success of the „digital sovereignty project“, there is critical potential in this regard for which scientific expertise can play a constructive role.

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