Digital sovereignty – is Europe going in the right direction to keep Internet infrastructure secure and open? – FA 01 Sub 03 2022

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21 June 2022 | 12:30 - 13:15 CEST | SISSA Main Auditorium | Video recording | Transcript
Consolidated programme 2022 overview / Day 1

Proposals: #58

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Session teaser

Countries around the world are increasingly using the term “digital sovereignty” to justify strikingly different policies to control how the Internet works – but which of these understandings pose the greatest threat to the Internet as we know it?

Session description

“Digital Sovereignty” is a term that has been used to justify an array of policy objectives, ranging from anti-monopoly legislation and data privacy laws all the way to legislation to disconnect a country from the global Internet. This session will explore the diverging understandings of the term “digital sovereignty” around the world, placing the use of the term in Europe within a global context. The discussion will seek to identify the greatest opportunities and threats to the Internet associated with this new term. Participants will address the following questions:

  • How do countries around the world use the term “digital sovereignty” differently?
  • How do key European players use the term?
  • How is sovereignty framed – sovereignty from who or what?
  • When does “digital sovereignty” policy harm Internet infrastructure and how?
  • What would the imposition of geographic borders mean for the global Internet?
  • When is the ambiguous nature of the term harmful or helpful?
  • How any fragmentation that happens "outside of" the Internet reflects on the Internet?


Panelists will share their views on the use of the term digital sovereignty in key countries and regions as well as the risks and opportunities this poses to the open, globally connected, secure and trustworthy Internet. This will be followed by an interactive discussion with attendees.

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>> NADIA TJAHJA: Ladies and gentlemen, kindly I ask you to start taking your seats.

We’re just about to start the next session.

Therefore, I would like to ask you to start taking your seats so we can start on focus area one, Digital Sovereignty - is Europe going in the right direction to keep internet infrastructure secure and open.

I would like to take the opportunity to introduce the moderator of the next session, David Frautschy, please take over the session and start your moderation.

>> DAVID FRAUTSCHY: It is not surprising to see this interest, we cannot take for granted that everybody gives the concept the same meaning as we have already seen in previous sessions, the discussions about what this is about. This is a critical step. Defining what we’re talking about and more importantly, what are the objectives. Otherwise, we could get in trouble and may be harming the Internet. I hope that the discussion’s today and tomorrow will identify this issue clearly, we want to answer this question, Digital Sovereignty - is Europe going in the right direction to keep internet infrastructure secure and open, because digital sovereignty often manifests measures and policies that target or effect the Internet and could affect how the Internet works. At the Internet Society we’re worried, concerned about this trend and we’re currently working on a project to understand the ways that the digital sovereignty plays out in different regions of the world and we want to provide a position in our community and make decisions rooted in what was mentioned, the Internet impact assessment framework.

This is a trend not happening only in Europe but other jurisdictions with other we could call other flavors, right. Other policy objectives. We see governments trying to impose geographic borders to something that does not have border, a global Internet. How will this affect the infrastructure? What should we be saying and doing about it.

We’re developing a position and this panel today at EuroDIG, they’re great in the work that we’re developing in the work of the Internet Society.

For the time, I will present the speakers and I will immediately give them the floor. We have Andrea Garcia Rodriguez from Brussels European policy centre, we have Florence G’Sell, from science poll, she’s the Chair of digital governance and sovereignty. We have Johannes Thumfart from the University and finally, we have Jaromir Novak, advisor to the Czech Minister of Industry and trade and I think we have a mixed composition of panelists, University present actives, think tanks and European Member States representative who can give the views of policymakers.

With no further ado, the floor is yours.

>> ANDREA GARCIA RODRIGUEZ: First of all, thank you very much, for this opportunity to be a speaker in this panel. Thank you for everyone in Trieste, I wish I could be there with you, I wish everybody could be in Italy right now.

(Poor audio quality).

It is my idea to give you a few points of discussion, obviously I’m surrounded by a very good panel today, I don’t want to take much of the time, plus I would rather see this opportunity to speak as an opportunity to provide food for thought. In that sense, I would like to focus my presentation in one topic that is often overlooked, this is in a global concept wrinkles we go in, when it comes to the Internet, the cyberspace, what are the key elements that we should have and what is Europe doing to react and how we have the strategy within this global idea. In essence, I would like to start with something rather controversial, it is a differentiation between – (poor audio quality).

Wherever you want to go, discuss this topic, digital sovereignty, it is obviously something that makes sense. When we think of the last few years, we have a tendency of growing inference by the European institutions, the French presidency, before that, the representative of in between Europe and the rest of the world when it comes to digital infrastructure but also when it comes to the development of new technologies. In that sense, my first point here that I want to give to you, it is that both terms, although there is only one, we have been using them, the sole goal is to do two things, the first, fill the gap. I think that we have been lagging behind on so many key issues that nowadays we’re trying to notice and others say it is building bridges. This metaphor is useful, we don’t understand the need of the European positions and also the European public administrations, national level, regional level, government level, to create this difference between the academia and private secretary, this is not something that will happen easily, academia needs to be able to provide research insight so that they can be put it in policy and policymakers should help the academics drive the direction of the research. The second bridge is between the public and private sector. In that accepts, we need a public sector that’s strengthened in a sense that’s able to provide the specific insights when it comes to the key priorities in cyberspace, not only when it comes to governance but also the topic of this panel discussion when it comes to building digital infrastructure, although it looks small, we all know in this room it is not the case. We need the infrastructure and we need to keep up on this infrastructure because there are lots of differences between Europe and so many other areas, we have the fiberoptic coverage, to telecommunications, 4G, 5G.

I think that in order to provide another controversial topic, the direction that we have been going, it is more focused on filling the gaps rather than building the bridges. Although we have seen this tendency towards building the bridges in the past two, three years, I think that Europe must ascribe, especially in the European Commission mandate – we have the mixed term and we have the policy review, in that sense, we have to look at the policy. The first, the policy, the first part of that, it is to keep filling the gaps and on the other hand, it must take this governance, with the new technologies and it must take this approach.

In this sense, I think that this idea of keeping the policies, it is perfectly convenient for what we understand as a parameter and for current update, it is for the economy and the Commission, it has labeled the ability to act autonomously to rely on the resources in key strategic areas and to cooperate with partners whenever needed. That means that we need to acknowledge we can’t do everything ourselves and we have to look for strategic partnerships. And we have to still decide what these are, so far we have had the partnerships within the typical forum or within the typical Allies, let it be Canada, the United States, and that’s the reason why we have the Council, we must not forget that we have an event upcoming with India and the E.U. is negotiating a free trade agreement with India and there are other partnerships coming with Asia countries, Japan, South Korea, many others. In that sense, I think that it may bring to the table exactly that, how do we convert the E.U. digital policy into a policy that takes into account these items with the economy bridges and gaps.

Then, of course, in proposing this, there will be always tension. I think if we see, we have the quest for the digital economy in a global sense, we see it often can be reactive because two of things. The first, it is the political tensions that are in Europe for the past few years and we see with China, the United States, Russia, I understand for this, we have many nuances to discuss, I understand how technology impacts fundamental rights and challenge our economic models and we focus on the economy here, it can be useful because, therefore, we can understand the emergence, for example, for the platform economy, how can we deal with this do you think with the legal tensions and the disruption.

In that way, we look outside of Europe. We will see that Europe is not the only country to take these steps forward. Fortunately we live in an era in which digital freedoms and rights are top of mind and referring especially to the digital protectionism and the second one, digital sovereignty, which is represented by China’s model and they have been trying to advance in several international institutions not only in the UN but other forums that they have themselves created. Just to bring you a definition that Chinese use, this definition, it is from ages ago when we think of digital terms, when we speak about cyber sovereignty we tend to speak about translating the principle of sovereignty from our physical domain, to the digital domain and this is a very dangerous approach to the cyberspace governance. Will it help the countries exercise the type of controls of what happens within? Specifically, literally reading, countries should respect each other’s right to create their own path of cyber development, model of regulation and policies and participate in international cyber governance on an equal footing, no country should interfere with other country’s international affairs or condone cybersecurities that undermine the national cybersecurity.

So of course, when speaking about this, it may look like – we basically are saying, okay, we pursue this goal, what is the role of Civil Society? How can we, for example, know if every country has a right to emphasize the full control over everything happening within, what are the safeguards we need to build in order to protect Internet freedoms? I think if we think about why we’re speaking about this, the first of all thing, we’re seeing an increasingly complex cyber threat landscape and that’s allowing countries – I’m not speak being China right now – but for example Russia, to tighten the grip around cyberspace. Russia’s Internet sovereignty law that came into force in 2019 is built around this idea that there is an increase target of foreign actor, vis-a-vis the United States and other, and therefore they have the need to have tighter control over the digital infrastructure so to avoid negative consequences from the cyber activities. That’s a reason why I think that we’re going that way.

The second one, we should not forget the incidents such as the Russian aggression against Ukraine providing a window of opportunity for countries that are looking at what model to follow. I think that’s one of the reasons, yes, I would –

>> DAVID FRAUTSCHY: We won’t have time for others –

>> ANDREA GARCIA RODRIGUEZ: I’m in the conclusion, this is the last three questions to ask the audience, what’s your idea on the economy role, vis-a-vis this tendency, and the second one, is there a way to endorse this gig economy in line of the foundational spirit of openness and political freedom. I give you the floor back, David. I’m sorry if I overcame my time, I think it is 5 minutes straight.

>> DAVID FRAUTSCHY: You won’t have – I mean, you’re putting the questions already on the table.

I’m giving you the floor to make your intervention. Go ahead.

>> FLORENCE G’SELL: Thank you very much, David.

Thank you very much for having me.

I have prepared a few slides that I want to show you. Can I – is it possible for me to show them?

>> DAVID FRAUTSCHY: I think you are. Yes.


Okay. Can you see them?

>> DAVID FRAUTSCHY: Yes. Only half of it. Now it is fine.

>> FLORENCE G’SELL: Is it okay? Thank you so much.

So Andrea said much on the topic and on the question that is very important for me as an academic and as a law professor which is to determine what digital sovereignty means, provided that we already know the term of sovereignty and the term of sovereignty refers to the state, especially the state’s authority and more specifically the state’s authority over territories.

As a jurist, the main question that I have, of course, how could the state have authority over the virtual world, we know today that it is possible to regulate somehow the virtual world. We still have issues when we try to really define this expression, this term digital sovereignty. It is all the more difficult that we also have other expressions that we use like technological sovereignty, like data sovereignty, and we realize that those expressions refer not only to the state authority but also to other IDs, like the fact that we are dependent for companies, for foreign nation, the fact that we have difficulties to control dataflows and to protect personal data and this is the reason why I would say that this expression of digital sovereignty actually refers to a double concern, to two concerns. First, the fact that there is a very strong influence of non-E.U. tech companies that of course threatens, for example, the E.U. citizen control over the personal data, this is what we call the surveillance category which constrains the growth of E.U. tech companies and which also restricts the ability of the E.U., of the Member States, to enforce their laws, which is really problematic because we know that the global tech companies do not always respect European rules and/or fundamental values. This is a huge issue. This is an issue that must be combined with another concern and with another problem, which is the fact that we are to a certain extent dependent on foreign technology. We know it and this dependence, it exists everywhere in the field of AI, in the field of cloud computing, it is in the field of 5G infrastructure and, of course, we are currently trying to overcome this situation given the fact that we don’t have the same possibilities as others. We know that the U.S. and China invests massively in AI and we, of course, don’t have the same means. Since the question about the E.U., we know that the E.U. has been taking action over the past years to narrow the investment gap, to make data protected, effectively protected within the E.U. and the E.U. started various initiatives to adapt the industrial and tech capacity to the new environment and especially regarding data, regarding AI, and there were calls to the European cloud and there was an initiative that was launched two years ago. Of course, there are various actions, we know that the curve initiative, the digital compass, the 2030 digital compass, the recent governance framework passed in September, the digital decade, we know the current regulatory initiatives. We know in the French presidency, major initiatives were pushed regarding the digital fields and here you have on the slide a list of all of the regulations that has been or are being adopted and I’m sure that I missed some of them on my slide.

One of my questions here, it is the questions that were asked, raised at the beginning of the panel, are we making the right choices. Could we say that we’re over regulating, that the European region would become separated from the rest of the world or that companies would be prevented from growing due to the regulations and this is something that I would like to ask and I would like to highlight the question of data transfers, we know that there is a new negotiations that is taking place with the U.S. for a new privacy shield. Again, are we being too dogmatic in this respect? Should we allow somehow that all data be transferred into U.S. and that to a certain extent that the U.S. authority may have access to those data? Again, this is a provocative question and this needs to be raised. Maybe we have hope, of course, since the E.U. is currently negotiating with the U.S. in the context of the trade and technology Council, but this may not be not enough. You mentioned, Andrea had mentioned previously, China, Russia, here I’m only talking about what’s currently going on with the U.S. Maybe we should, of course, discuss with everyone but I have to say, as a conclusion, that I’m a little bit worried about what the E.U. is doing from a regulatory perspective because I am wonder, frankly, if we’re going maybe too far. We have so many regulations coming at the very same time.

Is it that good for us and for our digital committee? This is a question that I would like to start with.

>> DAVID FRAUTSCHY: Thank you, very much. You described the situation as mostly the European situation, mostly as a response of the digital environment.

Now, Johannes Thumfart, the floor is yours. We are still good on time.

>> JOHANNES THUMFART: I have a problem with sharing my screen. Which is surprising. I cannot share at the moment. That’s bad. It is not a big problem.

I’ll speak just like that.

I will refer to an essay of mine on digital sovereignty that I was publishing this year and I started with three notions of digital sovereignty so the Chinese one, the Russian one, the European one and Chinese version of digital sovereignty, which is called cyber sovereignty, information sovereignty, in China, it is old, it goes back to the 1990s, starting around the year 1997 which is interesting with that perspective, it was also the time when Hong Kong was given back, for example, and so it frames the whole question in terms of anti-colonialism. On the inside, of course, it is involving censorship. China uses the influence as already said by Andrea Garcia Rodriguez to promote this issue of digital sovereignty in multilateral fora, for example, at the WSIS and in the Tunis agenda of 2005, it is also written down that states should have the sovereign right to regulate cyberspace.

That is interesting, because there is now more of an influence, French tech advisors, policy advisor, they are attending this WSIS meeting in 2005 and then they have the first European survey written in 2006. That’s just regarding the history of this idea and in Russia, you have way more aggressive idea of digital sovereignty than China. It goes back to the protests of 2011 and to the Snowden revelations of 2013 and from these states on China, Russia, I’m sorry, Russia, they’re developing the sovereign Internet and heading towards strong localization of data and also pursuing an overly aggressive international agenda, for example, by the propaganda campaigns, 2016 to 2017 in the context of Brexit, U.S. election and the French election. This also, what Russia is doing, it is pushing the E.U. to expert more Internet control for example with the French but also with the 2018 to 12 on misinformation and the German SDT, which is also a party included in the U.S. Digital Services Act. That is highly problematic, because these laws, for example, they’re found to be unconstitutional and France, it was immediately revoked by the Constitution and the German, it even inspired authoritarian, semi authoritarian regimes over the world, they explicitly mentioned the German person as an inspiration of the legislation.

Of course, it is a problem that’s been sapped by Florence G’Sell that there are over regulatory approach in Europe is hurting the medium, small enterprises who can usually not afford the high compliance cost by big tech frameworks China, the U.S., they can’t afford that.

Another problem aspect, the digital colonialism, it is already questionable in China, but at least China is a country that has experience ever colonialism in the past, a victim of colonialism, in Europe, Europe has been an active promoter of colonialism and it is a problem if the European politicians of all people speak about digital colonialism.

One also needs to say, that digital sovereignty in the U.S. is improving and we see that in the Digital Services Act and in the Digital Market Act who target explicitly a large enterprise, for example, as defined in the Digital Market Act, the gate keepers and the Digital Service Act very large online platforms.

What’s interesting, in the Digital Market Act, the question of interoperability, the principle open of the core Internet, it became part of the legislation inasmuch as it requires app providers to provide interoperability.

We don’t see right now how it is working out. It may also be a cybersecurity downside. It is actually an interesting approach.

What’s mostly important to remember, the whole talk of digital colonialism, it is masking the fact that it is not U.S. big tech or U.S. government that’s providing the – constituting that problem with Europe’s digital sovereignty, but it is rather Europe’s lacking investment and infrastructure.

You see that all over Europe pretty clearly with the fact that for example big, strong country such as Germany have primarily a cable infrastructure in terms of Internet still and you can also still see that in the fate of the Gaya project, it was supposed to provide the infrastructure and it included Google, Amazon and Huawei and it was a big question whether that kind of talk, economic protectionism is actually compatible with the export driven European interests. That’s the core question of the digital sovereignty to come to the conclusion for Europe, that the Europe digital industry and the industry overall, it is primarily export oriented. It can hardly have an interest in promoting any form of economic protectionism which digital sovereignty may include.

That was it from my side.

>> DAVID FRAUTSCHY: Thank you very much for this.

More geopolitical perspective to the debate.

So our final speaker today, Jaromir Novak. Please, the floor is yours. I want to ask the audience also to start thinking about the questions that should be posted on the chat before you conclude the conversation, please.

>> JAROMIR NOVAK: Thank you, David.

Thank you for inviting me in this interesting panel.

You know and are probably aware of the big difference between liberal and other countries in the Council and the projects, their own point of view, their own history and their own policy and what technological sovereignty is. The Czech Republic is part of the digital nine plus countries in the E.U. and for us, the technological sovereignty is having less dependence mostly of the critical infrastructure on suppliers from the third countries. For us, it is not definitely the E.U. first protection measure. This idea in my opinion can clearly be very harmful for the next combatants of the E.U. In the future if we close the doors we are not able to really focus on the competency of different regions.

Our University paper possession, research paper, I could share that link later on, and it is stated obviously that in the E.U. it is currently not the majority of technical innovations that closing the technological advanced products, we’re really limiting them in achieving high compatibility. I think that we as an E.U., we were so focusing on the next GSM miracle, so we missed the opportunity to look for innovations and it can be seen in the ITU level that the European countries are really claiming their positions and not focused on the supporting RNDs, we are focused on – we’re not able to protect the stealing from E.U. countries. This is what we should solve and not prepare the next regulation, I completely agree with Florence G’Sell, that the regulation of the Internet space in two, three years, it will be a total mess. There are too many legislations which is now approved on the E.U. level. It could be really harmful for small companies that would like to compete with the big tech.

As was said, the big tech, and for the compliance cost, but the small ones, they can’t. So we should focus on reducing these barriers and reducing the regulations because it will definitely change the Internet in the future.

Thank you.

>> DAVID FRAUTSCHY: Thank you.

This is a new perspective. This is one of the questions related to what you were saying. I have a question for the panelists. I see there is none coming on the chat, so I have one.

The policies being proposed, what is the risk of how it affects how the Internet works. The question for each of you, do you think that the European policymakers are fully aware of the risks so they’re putting on the table one after one new regulations as my colleague had mentioned before, risk that can derive from bad implementation of projects like DNS for E.U. or a project or regulation that can have good intentions but if they’re not well implemented, they could have bad consequences for the Internet, how consumers are affected and how the network works. What do you think? Are policymakers fully aware? How can we change this? How can we improve it? I pass one by one to you so that you can have a response to this.

Please, Andrea Garcia Rodriguez.

>> ANDREA GARCIA RODRIGUEZ: I think I’m going to be a bad speaker and throw this question first to our last speaker. I would like to build from what Jaromir Novak had to say about this.

>> DAVID FRAUTSCHY: All right. Florence G’Sell, any opinion on this?

>> FLORENCE G’SELL: I would like to take the example of the AI act. It has been highlighted that the perspective regulation could include significant constraints for SMEs and so it could be really problematic and inhibiting, but at the same time I think that all regulators see it as something that would create certain guarantees that could attract customers, that could show that the E.U. would be a protected market for certain kinds of customer, for certain kind of companies where basic values are respected. I think it is their idea. Maybe they don’t see as a side effect, but I think this is the main idea.

>> DAVID FRAUTSCHY: Johannes Thumfart, please.

>> JOHANNES THUMFART: That’s a good point. maybe European legislatures have a wrong idea about the digital products, maybe the high standard, high quality Brussels effect products, they work very well in other domains, for example, regarding cars, machinery, there you want this kind of regulation. Right. You have the high standards.

Maybe digital products, they work differently, that could be one question to ask, and, of course, another very obvious point, it is that it is very cheap for European legislators to just regulate and regulate and regulate and it looks very well in the media and in the press and at the audiences and it costs almost nothing for them immediately.

I think that’s just a very human sense that politicians will tend to act in that way and will put themselves into the spotlight by being harsh regulators.

It is another question whether that’s effective or not.

>> DAVID FRAUTSCHY: Mr. Jaromir Novak, please, any views on this?

>> JAROMIR NOVAK: Well, I would like to be diplomatic. I’m not sure that they are able to focus on all consequences that it can make and be done by the regulations. Maybe they’re more focused on the regulations itself and some highlights but they do not see the details of their steps and I remember 2009 when we negotiated regulations, it was literally a nightmare, the legislation, the preparation of the legislation and the details which were not very connected with real life. I’m quite afraid of the regulation concerning blocking the content. It could be really harmful, it could be harmful not only for the Internet but also for the trust of the people who are using this infrastructure.

This is – I think it is not well prepared, it is not well written, it is not very thinking through properly.

>> DAVID FRAUTSCHY: Thank you for those views.

I think one of the roles that we have as Civil Society, it is to give input to policymakers about what they are doing and what is wrong and what is right.

This process here, the EuroDIG, it will get the opinions of the panelists, the responses to the questions, and we will make a report on this and this can be used for input to policymakers so that they are fully aware of what Civil Society thinks and give guidance to the processes.

This is part of the nature of the European Union as well, listening to stakeholders of all nature. With that, I want to thank you for your participation. If there are no questions on the chat, I think we are closing the panel even 3 minutes ahead of time so that gives us 3 minutes of our life back.

Thank you, all, for coming today. Thank you for your comments and your contributions to this discussion.

>> NADIA TJAHJA: Thank you very much for the session.

The next session that’s coming up, it is the BigStage. During the BigStage we have the opportunity to hear from a variety of different people, different communities, to present something happening, a product, something that’s developing. Please do stay here during the BigStage and we would like to welcome the fundamental element of Europe’s eInfrastructure, to deliver the pan-European GEANT network for research and innovation, it is moderated by Hendrik Ike and it will start in about 3 minutes.

Thank you very much.