Europe, Africa and digital sovereignty

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In both Europe and Africa, there is a strong concern about the dominance of foreign digital industries and the relative lack of domestic champions, together with concerns about the way these industries extract and make use of citizens’ data. Politicians and theorists on both continents fear that the technologies that will shape our futures will be developed elsewhere, while foreign companies or powers will have unrestricted access to citizens’ data – with potentially dystopian consequences. 

The term ‘digital sovereignty’ is widely used in these debates about digital governance, but there is little consensus about what it actually means. Julia Pohle and Thorsten Thiel argue that the concept is more of a discursive practice than a legal concept that reflects the values of different political entities, particularly with regard to their approach to self-determination. In turn, policymakers and civil society in Europe and Africa have varying opinions about how to best ensure that digital sovereignty is achieved. For Europe and Africa to arrive at a more shared approach to digital sovereignty would require a deeper engagement with the concerns of different actors on each side and a willingness to truly negotiate. 


Competing visions of digital sovereignty

Policymakers in the United States are concerned by the concept of digital sovereignty, which has largely been constructed in opposition to the US’s own outsized power over the internet and its powerful digital private sector champions such as Google and Facebook. This is notably true for China and Russia, which each broadly defend a state-centric vision of ‘cyber sovereignty’ or ‘internet sovereignty’, seeking to make the state the arbiter of internet governance rules and the data of its citizenry.

The European Union (EU), fearing its dependence on American and Chinese big tech, is trying to take steps to build its own digital industries. It takes a more interventionist approach to the US, and broadly hopes to promote a liberal vision of digital sovereignty whereby citizens’ data is protected not only from big tech, but also from state actors. In Africa, debates about digital sovereignty are being raised by leaders and theorists who fear a new form of colonialism due to Africa’s dependence on foreign technologies and its lack of control over citizens’ data. Elements of both a more state-centric model and a more liberal-model each have their constituencies in Africa.

While China’s approach to promoting internet sovereignty internationally is fragmented and by no means uniform, one of the most notable elements of its approach includes data localisation laws that encourage holding all data within the state where it is produced. Meanwhile, Russia has been active in promoting its approach to cybercrime, notably through its advocacy for a global cybercrime treaty at the UN, which would promote each state’s ability to define and regulate cybercrime on its own terms.

Critics of data localisation laws argue that it is unclear how effective such rules are in protecting citizens’ data if they are not backed up by strong guidelines about how the data can or cannot be used, notably by the state itself. Similarly, some analysts worry that Russia’s anti-cybercrime efforts would grant states an outsized role in arbitrating what can be defined as cybercrime, and undermine efforts to build global minimum standards. 

In Europe, perhaps the best definition of how EU leaders see digital sovereignty appears in the 2 October 2020 European Council Conclusions: “To be digitally sovereign, the EU must build a truly digital single market, reinforce its ability to define its own rules, to make autonomous technological choices, and to develop and deploy strategic digital capacities and infrastructure.” It proceeds to state that digital development must follow a human-centric approach, mentioning that it should “safeguard our values, fundamental rights and security, and be socially balanced”.

French President Macron and EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton have been the leading proponents of a strong European industrial policy that would allow for the emergence of European champions, promoting joint projects. This includes a European Alliance for Industrial Data, Edge and Cloud, co-funded by EU member states and industry, and a European Alliance on Processors and Semiconductor technologies.

At the same time, theorists argue that while there is certainly a need for a more competitive tech space, where companies do not have the kind of undemocratic power that the American tech giants known as GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft) currently exercise in Europe, the focus should not be on replacing these companies with European equivalents. Indeed, the focus should instead be on a bottom-up approach to sovereignty that allows for the creation of a democratic digital space. 

In Africa, there is also a growing focus on digital sovereignty, but there have been less conversations at the continental level – and thus efforts to secure Africa’s digital sovereignty are more scattered and diverse. One important exception is the 2014 African Union (AU) Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection, but only 14 out of the 55 AU member states have signed the convention. 

State-centric versions of digital sovereignty appeal to many African leaders, who have a keen desire to protect and enhance state sovereignty as part of ongoing state-building efforts. A majority of African states supported Russia’s cybercrime resolutions at the UN, and a number of African countries, as well as other developing countries around the world, have begun efforts to keep data within their borders. For example, in Senegal, Huawei will build a data centre that will hold all public data on Senegalese territory and will offer favourable terms to businesses that also wish to do so. This move is significant, coming at a time when Huawei is under attack by the US, and to a lesser extent by European countries, which fear the company may share user data with the Chinese government.

Theorists and experts have advocated a number of ways for Africa to work towards digital sovereignty, including for example more united efforts to work together at a regional level, substantial investments to decentralise the internet, and to promote free and open source software created by Africans.


Digital sovereignty in EU-AU cooperation

Digital sovereignty remains a highly contested term, and it is unlikely that consensus around its definition will be reached anytime soon. If the EU and the AU hope to develop a joint vision for digital sovereignty, more will need to be done on both sides. The EU should not simply seek to export a European model of digital sovereignty, but work with African states, civil society and experts to develop a meaningful dialogue. The AU should work towards building a stronger continental agenda around what Africa hopes to achieve in terms of digital sovereignty.

Europe and Africa should make joint efforts to invest in projects that would support digital sovereignty on both continents, including joint industrial projects – in the area of ethical AI and open-source technologies for instance. This would respond to some of the gaps in terms of local digital industries on both continents as well as to local needs, and would demonstrate that the EU-AU digital partnership is not simply about trying to export European technologies or about aid, but about reinforcing a free and open internet.


Author: Chloe Teevan, ECDPM.

The blog is part of the European Think Tanks Group’s work on the EU-AU digital partnership. Previous work includes:

Photo by Scott Blake on Unsplash.

The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ETTG.

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