Digital sovereignty is becoming very important, Dettapay is hoping to be at the fore font of it.

Digital sovereignty seems to be something very important, given the popularity of the topic these days. True. But it also sounds like a technical issue, which concerns only specialists. False. Digital sovereignty, and the fight for it, touch everyone, even those who do not have a mobile phone or have never used an online service. 

June 18, 2020: The British government, after having failed to develop a centralised, coronavirus app not based on the API provided by Google-Apple,Footnote1 gave up, ditched the whole project (Burgess 2020) and accepted to start developing a new app in the future that would be fully compatible with the decentralised solution supported by the two American companies. This U-turn was not the first: Italy (Longo 2020) and Germany (Busvine and Rinke 2020; Lomas 2020) had done the same, only much earlier. Note that, in the context of an online webinar on COVID-19 contact tracing applications, organised by RENEW EUROPE (a liberal, pro-European political group of the European Parliament), Gary Davis, Global Director of Privacy & Law Enforcement Requests at Apple (and previously Deputy Commissioner at the Irish Data Protection Commissioner’s Office), stated that

“Google/Apple can disable the system [i.e. the contact tracing app, my text] on a regional basis when no longer needed”. This is power as control, as I shall explain presently, and it is clear who has it and who can exercise it, as far as the coronavirus apps and the API are concerned.

July 7, 2020: Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, announced the intention of his government to ban TikTok (Clayton 2020). India had already banned it (Singh 2020) together with tens of other Chinese apps, including WeChat, following clashes at the India-China border in the Himalayas. TikTok is an app to create and share amateur music videos of a few seconds. Translated into 40 languages, it has over 800 million active users every month. Something used to enjoy singing, dancing, comedy, and lip-syncing short videos would seem harmless. However, the videos may contain social or political messages, for example. And the fear is that the app can collect personal data, including sensitive metadata, such as user geolocation, and may be used to support China’s espionage and infiltration, hence the possible ban. However, things may soon change. At the time of writing, Microsoft announced that:

“Following a conversation between Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and President Donald J. Trump, Microsoft is prepared to continue discussions to explore a purchase of TikTok in the United States. Microsoft will move quickly to pursue discussions with TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, in a matter of weeks, and in any event completing these discussions no later than September 15, 2020. During this process, Microsoft looks forward to continuing dialogue with the United States Government, including with the President. The discussions with ByteDance will build upon a notification made by Microsoft and ByteDance to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). The two companies have provided notice of their intent to explore a preliminary proposal that would involve a purchase of the TikTok service in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and would result in Microsoft owning and operating TikTok in these markets. Microsoft may invite other American investors to participate on a minority basis in this purchase.” August 2, 2020, Microsoft Corporate Blogs. These are just a handful of examples, during some ordinary weeks in the life of the digital revolution. They could be multiplied, the reader may have others in mind, and I shall refer to one more in a moment. But the common thread that unites them is getting clear: these are all episodes in the fight for digital sovereignty, that is, for the control of datasoftware (e.g. AI), standards and protocols (e.g. 5G, domain names), processes (e.g. cloud computing), hardware (e.g. mobile phones), services (e.g. social media, e-commerce), and infrastructures (e.g. cables, satellites, smart cities), in short, for the control of the digital. Let me clarify that by “control” I mean here the ability to influence something (e.g. its occurrence, creation, or destruction) and its dynamics (e.g. its behaviour, development, operations, interactions), including the ability to check and correct for any deviation from such influence. In this sense, control comes in degrees and above all can be both pooled and transferred. This is crucial since we shall see that the ultimate form of control is individual sovereignty, understood as self-ownership, especially over one’s own body, choices, and data.

But enough about a possible future. Let me close with a look at the past, and a historical comparison almost entirely incorrect. The fight for digital sovereignty may remind one of the Investiture Controversy, the medieval conflict between the Church/Pope and the State/Emperor in Europe over the ability to choose and install bishops and more generally over secular and spiritual power. Of course, that controversy is very different from anything we are seeing in the fight for digital sovereignty. But I wrote that the comparison is not entirely incorrect. That controversy was a significant stage in the development of the concept of sovereignty, as the etymology of the word makes obvious. Today, the fight is not over secular and spiritual power but over corporate and political power over the digital, yet the roots of this clash are very old. But most importantly that mediaeval debate reminds us that whoever will win the fight for digital sovereignty will determine the lives of all people on both sides of the digital divide, exactly like the Investiture Controversy affected all people, no matter whether religious or not. This is why I begun this article by saying that digital sovereignty is not just a matter of interest for some specialists. It is already affecting everybody. And this is why it is essential to design it as well as possible, together.