Europe's pursuit of digital sovereignty could affect the future of the Internet

Europe's pursuit of digital sovereignty could affect the future of the Internet

(Editor's note: this is a guest post contributed by Dr. Konstantinos Komaitis, Senior Director of Policy, Strategy and Development at the Internet Society.)

Europe is marching towards a dangerous and, potentially, irreversible trend that could see the world’s second largest economy alone and alienated.

The trend is: digital sovereignty.

Europe’s obsession with digital sovereignty is not new, but in the last year it has become more prominent and is the driving force behind many of the policy and technology frameworks of the bloc.

In February, 2020, then newly elected President of the European Commission, Ursual von der Leyen, wrote: “I sum up all of what I have set out with the term 'tech sovereignty'. This describes the capability that Europe must have to make its own choices, based on its own values, respecting its own rules”.

Like any other country, Europe should feel free to impose its own rules and laws in the Internet. But, a strict Hobbesian view of a single hierarchy of authority does not work for the Internet because the Internet does not or rather cannot – obey to any such authority.

The Internet is made of independent networks that connect to one another through a voluntary set of of open standards that ensure interoperability. This allows the interconnections to work efficiently without much prior arrangement. As a result of this voluntary interconnection, the Internet does not have a center of control. This lack of central authority means that each and every actor - state or non – can participate in the Internet and reap the benefits of innovation and global connectivity. Any attempt to impose any sort of authority over it would not only affect these benefits, but could also have unintend consequences for governments, and for the Internet.

In the last year alone, Europe has made headway in achieving its goal of digital sovereignty through different ways. GAIA-X, a Franco-German initiative on behalf of Europe seeks to create a “federated cloud architecture.” Similarly, in a recently released communication from the European Commission on the Union’s security strategy, the intention to “ dependency on infrastructures and services located outside of Europe” was reasserted, echoing similar rationales put forth by the Russian sovereign law.

Moreover and, despite some strong criticism on the unintended consequences created by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Europe continues to act as the de facto global regulator for the Internet.

As part of its digital sovereignty strategy, Europe will release later this year its Digital Services Act (DSA) package, a mammoth piece of legislation meant to tackle the behaviour and business models of online platforms. T

he DSA, combined with the GDPR, are aimed at ring-fencing data from Europe in an effort to give a competitive advantage to European firms enabling them to compete on the world stage. Through the DSA, Europe has a unique opportunity to address, what are effectively, some of the biggest challenges in the Internet to date.

One of the main reasons for the Internet’s success is that its architecture was not an outcome of politics. The Internet’s original design was never the expression of a hegemon and its order to the people building the Internet. Instead, it was a democratic attempt at consensus amongst a variety of contributors, including the government, the private sector and the technical community. This consensus is reflected in the way the Internet was designed and has performed ever since.

The main question is how far is Europe willing to go and upset this consensus in order to support its vision of technological or digital sovereignty. The Chinese example has demonstrated that if this consensus is stretched far enough, it leads to a version of the Internet that departs significantly from its original incarnation as a free, open and inclusive space.

Europe has certainly a big choice to make and, so far, it appears to be disregarding how its obsession for digital sovereignty may be affecting the Internet. Because, if we want to preserve it, then its architectural values are as equally important as the European ones.

Featured image credit: Natasa Pavic / Pixabay

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