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Digital sovereignty: what is at stake?

The power of the digital giants is clearly competing with that of States and impacting on the freedom of users. The 2000s saw the first questions raised on this subject and the emergence of the notion of digital sovereignty. What is at stake in this digital sovereignty and how can we regain power over our data?

Digital sovereignty: definition

Digital sovereignty seems to be an oxymoron. On the one hand, sovereignty is defined as the exercise of power over a geographical area and the population that occupies it. On the other hand, can this authority be exercised in digital space, in a virtual area? Cyberspace is a new place of power, in a virtual universe without geographical anchorage.

The concept of digital sovereignty was born in the 2000s and has seen many attempts at definition. Pierre Bellanger, chairman of Skyrock, gave an interesting definition in 2011: 'Digital sovereignty is the control of our present and our destiny as they are manifested and directed by the use of computer technologies and networks'.

In 2019, the report of the Senate's committee of enquiry on digital sovereignty defines it as the State's ability to act in cyberspace, a necessary condition for the preservation of French and European values. This implies an autonomous capacity to assess, decide and act in cyberspace, as well as control over networks, electronic communications and data in France.

Digital sovereignty is an objective sought by public authorities, companies and citizens alike. The power of the GAFAMs (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft), the NATUs (Netflix, AirBnb, Tesla and Uber) and the BATXs (Baidu, AliBaba, Tencent and Xiaomi) in China is challenging the authority of States over their territories, thanks to the economic dependence created by a quasi-monopoly and the possession of the data of billions of users around the world.

To protect our personal data and our freedom, digital sovereignty is a key issue, an inherent challenge of the 21st century.


Digital sovereignty for States

Digital sovereignty is essential for States, which are facing competition from digital giants. Globally, States are claiming their power to regulate the Internet, particularly in the face of the United States and its authorities.

In Europe, states have chosen a liberal approach, granting the state the right to protect the freedoms of its citizens from entities that are ill-defined or guided by commercial interests. Other States, such as Russia or China, have a more authoritarian conception of digital sovereignty, involving the control of virtual spaces to promote their interests.

In all cases, public powers are in a power struggle with the digital giants that rule cyberspace. Their aim is to preserve a share of their power despite omnipresent technologies: algorithms, connected objects, robotics, artificial intelligence, etc., which are governed more by computer code than by the legal norms of States.


Digital sovereignty for users

Digital sovereignty also applies to users. For them, the aim is to protect their personal data, to make choices and to turn away from certain applications/companies according to their preferences, just as they would do in a supermarket.

This "popular" sovereignty can be exercised individually or collectively, within communities of users. Increasingly important for Internet users, it also translates into guarantees such as the right to be forgotten, to dereferencing or to personal data protection thanks to the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation).




The sovereignty of the digital giants

Nevertheless, it is legitimate to think that digital sovereignty belongs to the digital giants, in particular to the GAFAMs, which hold the power over the web thanks to their products and services. Moreover, when we talk about digital sovereignty, we often refer to them because they dispossess States of their authority and put them in difficulty.

Thanks to their economic quasi-monopoly, these multinationals control and regulate cyberspace. The digital giants set the conditions of use of services, create algorithms, delete content or user profiles, sell personal data, create their virtual currencies (Libra for Facebook), etc.


Challenges related to digital sovereignty

The loss of digital sovereignty is at the heart of the concerns of public authorities and users. States are losing their authority to the private multinationals that rule in cyberspace. Ironically, these same states are forced to work with American companies because of the lack of sufficient technology in their countries.


Economic and technological dependence

In order to establish digital sovereignty, it is necessary to develop its own digital tools so as not to depend on the solutions of the digital giants. The problem is that French technology players do not have the same technological power as American multinationals, despite a few unicorns such as OVHcloud or Doctolib.

France's economic and technological dependence on the United States is demonstrated by several examples:

  • the use of the company Palantir, partly financed by the CIA, to help the DGSI in the fight against terrorism in 2016 and again in 2019, as no French company has managed to offer an equivalent technology1.
  • the hosting of French health data by Microsoft as part of the Health Data Hub, because French solutions did not allow the use of the best artificial intelligence algorithms, due to European delays.
  • the hosting of certificates of state-guaranteed loans (PGE) by BPIFrance on the Amazon Web Services cloud, awarded without a call for tenders.

Entrusting this type of sensitive data to foreign companies, which could exploit it, is a significant risk to the protection of national interests.

Of course, developments of French tools have been launched in recent years to try to compete with American solutions. The French government funded two sovereign cloud projects in 2009 (Cloudwatt and Numergy), which unfortunately failed. A French search engine, Qwant, was launched in 2013 as an alternative to Google for users wishing to protect their personal data. It has met with some success but is still far from competing with the American search engine.


Tax policy

In terms of tax policy, States are no more sovereign in the face of the power of GAFAM. Indeed, the digital giants practice tax optimisation. Brussels estimates that their average tax rate on profits does not exceed 9.5%, unlike traditional companies, which are taxed at 23.2%. Hundreds of millions of euros are therefore lost to the tax authorities every year.

This is why the European Union launched in 2018 a project for a tax on digital services, for better justice and tax harmonisation between countries. Unfortunately, the idea of taxing 3% on the turnover generated by certain digital activities is slow to come into force due to lack of support from member States and fear of US retaliation.

While waiting for the European Union, France voted its own GAFA tax in July 2019, which is expected to raise €650 million in 2020. The passage of this law led to US customs measures against France. A down payment was made in 2019, but this GAFA tax is still struggling to be implemented.


Protection of rights

Questions about digital sovereignty require attention to the protection of individuals' rights in the digital space. This concerns both the right to be forgotten and the right to data protection.

Some of these rights have already been implemented at European level, for example with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This European regulation came into force in 2018 to protect users' data on the web and ensure its control. The Council of State also adopted decrees in 2019 concerning the right to be forgotten and the right to dereferencing on search engines.

>> Go further: Data, the new market value?




Governance of the digital space

Overall, the governance of the digital space is not sufficiently democratic, multilateral and transparent. The United States holds a technological and economic quasi-monopoly. Opaque multinationals rule the web. This lack of shared responsibility has led to a break with powerful states such as China, which have chosen to regain control over cyberspace by creating their own.

One example is ICANN, which allocates domain names and IP addresses around the world. Founded in 1998, ICANN was controlled by the US Department of Commerce until 2016. ICANN vice-president Christopher Mondini said the new governance would have no impact on the way the web works but should protect it from State influence: good news for the governance of cyberspace as it begins to open up.


The creation of the Institute for Digital Sovereignty

In order to fight against the loss of digital sovereignty, France created the Institute for Digital Sovereignty in 2017. Its objective is to federate the actors concerned by digital changes and to raise awareness of the challenges of digital sovereignty among citizens, public actors and industry. In line with the European values of freedom and transparency, the Institute for Digital Sovereignty promotes these issues in France and in Europe.

It is also this institute that organises the Digital Sovereignty Conference, which will take place this year on Wednesday 19 May 2021.

To date, neither France nor Europe is sovereign in the digital space. However, awareness of the challenges linked to digital sovereignty is leading to actions by public and economic powers to better share responsibilities on the web, while protecting the interests of users.