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Image credit: Jacques-Louis David, Le serment du jeu de Paume, le 20 juin 1789, huile sur toile, 65 x 88 cm, Paris, musée Carnavalet

The notion of digital sovereignty is present on all fronts and in all conversations. Private actors, public administrations, politicians, tech giants… all are seizing this idea to defend their thoughts and interests. But do you really know what it is?

At the origin of digital sovereignty, national sovereignty!

A state’s sovereignty is defined in law as the possession of absolute and unconditional power by the supreme authority. In a democracy, this power is held by the people, who then delegate it to a political body: this is national sovereignty. In France, this principle is found in Article 3 of the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen of 1789, as well as in Article 3 of the Constitution of 4 October 1958.

In reality, the notion of sovereignty is much older and the main principles that composed it were established in the Treaties of Westphalia of 1648:

  • External Sovereignty;
  • Internal Sovereignty;
  • Balance of Powers.

This Westphalian system is today contested and questioned because it is no longer representative of the international reality. It would then be a “post-Westphalian” era that would triumph in the context of globalization, implying the elimination of borders and an acceleration of exchanges, phenomena that have been reinforced with the advent of digital technology.

Digital sovereignty, a complex concept to define

Concerns about digital sovereignty already emerged in the 2000s but the notion itself was only developed in the 2010s, especially after the Snowden case. Still, despite its popularity, the notion of digital sovereignty has not received an official definition. Nonetheless, the French Senate has tried to define it as the “capacity of the State to act in cyberspace,” which covers two dimensions:

  • “The ability to exercise sovereignty in digital space, which is based on an autonomous capacity to assess, decide and act in cyberspace – and which in fact corresponds to cyber defense”
  • “The ability to maintain or restore France’s sovereignty over digital tools in order to be able to control our data, our networks and our electronic communications”

Understanding the scope of digital sovereignty is not so simple

The lack of an official definition of digital sovereignty may lead one to believe that it is a complex exercise, even for legislators. Indeed, this notion covers multiple aspects:

  • Legal sovereignty: regulations governing technologies, digital technology and its uses;
  • Sovereignty of economic operators: the power of private actors allows them to impose their dictates in the digital world;
  • Popular sovereignty: individuals and communities have the possibility to contribute, through their choices and decisions, to future technological and digital developments;
  • Technological sovereignty: it is in the interest of States to develop national technologies to be technologically independent.

Par Alexia Nay

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