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Digitalisation, analytics and artificial intelligence are ubiquitous. Therefore, we need big data but, how can companies expect customers to provide their personal data without an autonomous proof of matters like data protection, information security and unbias technology by design? In a virtually connected world, it is time for trustworthy technology and established processes to guarantee sustainable and secure data management. Digital sovereignty, a notion of European origin, can be implemented by technology companies on various levels.

Digital Sovereignty as a chance for Europe

Europe needs to stay competitive

The European Union (EU) initiative of digital sovereignty aims at positioning Europe as a competitive leader in world-class, responsible and sustainable high-tech. The primary underlying reason for the increased deliberations around this topic is the fact that the EU is currently dependent on non-EU companies in important social fields of digital infrastructure, components and services (and the development, production and distribution of these). It is a response to Europe’s struggles with data control and law enforcement in the digital environment. In 2015 the EU started investing strategically in digitalisation and developed the concept of digital sovereignty to compete against world technology leaders like the United States and China. “Europe must bolster its digital sovereignty to effectively respond to future challenges, guarantee livelihoods and ensure the security of its citizens.” (1) The advancement of technological sovereignty does not constitute a conflict with free trade, but the goal hereof rather lies in encouraging the development, support and advancement of European standards; the development, support and building of the required competencies for the responsible integration of imported components. Europe does not want to follow but lead the digital landscape and is going to create a vision for a virtual economy and society.

The prerequisites for digital sovereignty are multi-fold

Prerequisites for digital sovereignty are data sovereignty and technological sovereignty in the areas of hardware, software and architecture. Data protection and information security collectively constitute the cornerstone of digital sovereignty, requiring „harmonised product requirements beyond company and country boundaries… along the entire supply chain and throughout the whole product life cycle“ (2). Furthermore, digital sovereignty is a matter of jurisdiction as well as expert skills to make necessary adjustments.

For consumers, technological sovereignty means the right to the effective protection of informational self-determination, which concretely relates to, among others, data protection, information security, interoperability and sustainability. According to Angela Merkels definition of digital sovereignty in 2019, people must be involved in the digitalisation processes and retain control over their personal data (3). Reality is that, while consumers do pay attention to certificates and security standards when buying an analog or physical product, most of them blindly trust virtual offerings. Reasons might be the additional effort to get informed or the lack of risk awareness. Often users do not know how, where or by whom their data is being processed. Most also do not know how to manage their data or what rights they have while compliance incidents pile up.

Companies are expected to rise to the occasion of digital sovereignty

From the perspective of a provider, digital sovereignty implies the equality of opportunities for European tech companies via, for example, uniform legislation and research funding for the advancement digital technology. The state has cybernetic control to shape legislation, incentives, costs or taxation, but is dependent on companies in the digital. The claim for companies is to gain autonomy in the digital field and shape the digital transformation in a self-determined way. These developments created a new system of internet governance and evolved into a new challenge for companies – whether located in or trading in Europe – to invest in trustworthy digital products and services to stay competitive. Digital sovereignty provides influence and leadership in the digital age. It has become a tool for companies to increase the power of their products and brands, especially on the global market.

For companies specifically, we recommend that they start with defining principles and values applicable to the own company. By integrating these into the company’s products and services and applying a broader mindset of the wider impact of the said products and services, the trust from customers, business partners and the communities at large, will be amplified. Communication is key.

Below are a few pointers for companies to consider, in the quest to be aligned with digital sovereignty:

  • In which cases can and should I have full control over my customers’ data?
  • How do I ensure the incorporation of digital sovereignty standards in the design of my hardware?
  • Am I dependent on one of my partners and if so, by choice?
  • Do I make sure to stay up to date on the latest technical developments, to stay abreast of the most efficient data protection, information security, least bias features? 
  • What degree of transparency is expected from regulators and other stakeholders and where is the limit of these?
  • Do I have a full picture of which laws my partners are subject to and which not?

Companies must place the interests of humanity, society and the environment at the center of their digital transformation. Although the notion of digital sovereignty stems from Europe, the principles it is founded upon constitute a solid foundation for all companies to establish and develop fair, responsible and sustainable technological advancements.

– (1) Federal Foreign Office (Ed.) (n/A). Expanding the EU’s digital sovereignty. www.eu2020.de – [23.04.2021]

– (3) Federal Government (Ed.) (26.11.2019). Speech by Federal Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel opening the 14th Annual Meeting of the Internet Governance Forum in Berlin on 26 November 2019. www.bundesregierung.de – [23.04.2021]

– Floridi, L. (2020). The Fight for Digital Sovereignty: What It Is, and Why It Matters, Especially for the EU. Philosophy & Technology, 33, p. 369–378.

– Fox, D. (2018). Digitale Souveränität. Datenschutz und Datensicherheit, 42(5), p. 271-271.

– (2) Kalusa, K. (30.04.2020). Unternehmen brauchen digitale Souveränität. Von VDMA Maschinen- und Anlagenbau. www.vdma.org – [13.01.2020]

– Kar, R. M., & Thapa, B. E. (2020). Digitale Souveränität als strategische Autonomie: Umgang mit Abhängigkeit im digitalen Staat. Berlin: Kompetenzzentrum Öffentliche IT / Fraunhofer FOKUS. 

– Krupka, D. (2020). Dimensionen Digitaler Souveränität – Ein Überblick. Arbeitspapier: Schlüsselaspekte Digitaler Souveränität (S. 1-23). Bonn: Gesellschaft für Informatik e.V.

– Schieferdecker, I., & March, C. (2020). Digitale Innovationen und Technologiesouveränität. Wirtschaftsdienst, 100, p. 30-35.

– Sieber, Z. (10.02.2021). Digital Sovereignty – The EU in a Contest for Influence and Leadership. Von Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung e.V.: www.boell.de – [23.04.2021]

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