Our goal at the DOC Research Institute is to foster dialogue among all cultures and civilisations to forge shared worldviews on fundamental policy issues. Our culturally informed approach produces a multifaceted outlook, from the everyday level of human interaction to the global level of institutionalised power. This project, under the direction of Professor Richard Higgott, has been developed in this fashion.
This draft report, written by Higgott and his colleague Dr Kate Coyer, is the initial instalment in this project. The draft is circulated initially to provoke and facilitate debate. The digital players and ‘ecologies’ referenced throughout are diverse, evolving, and worthy of greater collaborative dialogue.
We welcome comment and engagement and are looking forward to the project’s development in collaboration with our truly global network of experts – if you are new to the DOC and would like to participate in this dialogue, please get in touch by sending comments to the authors via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sovereignty in a digital era
The aim of this report is to specify the impact of digitalisation on sovereignty. It is premised on the assumption that sovereignty, the dominant organising characteristic of social and political order for the last four centuries, has undergone profound change over the last half-century. Driven initially by technology-enabled globalisation, and then by anti-globalism, sovereignty has become an even more politically charged and contested concept as its significance has been re-enhanced by the rise of nationalism. The rapid emergence of digitalisation has been the agent that has powered a so-called ‘crisis of sovereignty’. This report analyses six aspects of the digitalisation-sovereignty relationship.
Firstly, the report looks at the concept of sovereignty as a determining factor of social and political life. It looks at how the nature of sovereignty – what it means for a state to be sovereign – has changed in recent years under the influences of globalisation, the drift towards anti-globalism, and, more broadly but closely connected, digitalisation.
The argument, in short, is that digitalisation fundamentally changes what it means for a state to call itself sovereign. That senior politicians and policymakers still think that the states they lead and manage can have absolute sovereignty – as many still do, rhetorically at least – beggars the imagination.
Secondly, it provides an introduction to digital technology, from its optimistic origins as a free, open, and transparent provider of information and communication, to now darker views of the internet’s role as a manipulative and manipulated agent of intrusion and socio-political control, driven by the monetisation of behavioural data captured by both a small group of tech giants and a fast-growing sector of small-to-medium-sized digital companies. It identifies the significance and implications of machine-learning and algorithmic decision-making on socio-political life and asks what is further at stake in the development of digitalisation. In short, digital sovereignty asks us to rethink the nature of sovereignty itself.
Thirdly, it looks at the struggle between the tech sector and the state for control of digital governance. It focuses on the near-ubiquitous presence of digital networks, and the complex and contested nature of internet governance and ‘internet intermediaries’ as interlocutors in the politically charged relationship between digital platforms and the state over content moderation and information access, as well as the relationship between digitalisation and electoral sovereignty.
Fourthly, it looks at visions of the internet and their implications for sovereignty. It identifies three competing visions: American, Chinese, and ‘other’, especially but not exclusively those of the EU as the principal alternative to US and Chinese attempts to build and maintain separate digital ecologies. These three visions reflect two struggles. Firstly, over regulatory primacy between private actors and states. Europe’s aims for a model urging a democratic regulatory response sets it apart from China and the US. Europe is shown to be resisting not only Chinese and US political pressure but also the power of major US tech corporations. Secondly, the report looks at the contest over the shape of a post-liberal American led world order as the US and China battle for international ascendancy over digital technologies. The report offers a short study of the US-China relationship over the role of Huawei in the development of 5G technology to illustrate the manner in which the governance and control of digital technology – and especially a trend toward decoupling in the digital sector – is becoming one of the major international relations agenda items of our age.
Fifthly, the report looks at the fraught relationship between digitalisation and political control and particularly the juxtaposition of the internet’s conflicting and contradictory positions as an agent of empowerment, openness, transparency, and potential democratisation on the one hand and as an agent of control, repression, and political authoritarianism on the other.
Sixthly, the report was drafted only as the implications of Covid-19 were beginning to emerge. Just as digitalisation affects socio-political and economic life both domestically and internationally, the coronavirus is also exacerbating change in these domains. The report’s judgments reached in parts 1-5 are both complicated yet reinforced by Covid-19. Both the theory and practice of sovereignty, and our understanding of global world order, will be dramatically affected by it. The report offers some inevitably preliminary implications of Covid-19’s impact on the sovereignty-digitalisation dynamic.
Digital sovereignty conclusions
The report concludes that:
- The optimism of the early ‘digital utopians’ is giving way to disillusionment as the impact of the under-regulated power of the private sector is operationalised.
- The concept of absolute sovereignty is a polite fiction in an era of globalisation and has become even more so in an era of digitalisation. But digitalisation affects sovereignty in different ways for different kinds of states.
- Excited by its potential but fearful of its darker side, the key issues are how both states and tech companies respond to the challenges of digitalisation and the impact of civil society’s longstanding work in fighting bad laws and practice.
- The extant challenges are further exacerbated by the Covid-19 global pandemic.
- It is time to recognise sovereignty as fungible, rather than absolute. It is more a process of bargaining in an increasingly hybrid international, globally networked context of digitalisation for which neither history nor a reliance on unregulated private actors mediating for states have any real lessons.
These conclusions carry four major implications:
- Over the short-to-medium term, the world will likely become less prosperous, less open, and less free as states, confusing resilience and policy autonomy with sovereignty, turn in on themselves in enhanced nationalist fashion.
- Bipolarity will be reinforced. What started out as a US desire to decouple its economy from China’s, especially in the domains of artificial intelligence (AI) and digitalisation, is now reciprocated by China. The degree to which this process drives a ‘new Cold War’ is yet to be determined.
- Assumptions of the sovereign control of digital communication are becoming mere exercises in wish-fulfilment rather than realistic aspirations. A successful resolution of the current impasse will not come just from great power geopolitical games reasserting the absolute sovereignty of the state.
- It is clear on the basis of observed behaviour that, like it or not, states and regions, such as Europe are likely to search for a role in this sub-optimal bipolar battle for digital governance rather than search for multilateral solutions.
But the report also offers an alternative, more positive, scenario. It advances an argument that in a world of digital communication, there is a limit to the degree of global decoupling that can actually occur. The digitalisation genie will not easily be put back into the bottle. Technology is now global not only in its distributive effects but also in its consequences. Viruses, both human and digital, are trans-sovereign in their impact. They do not need passports. In the current digital era, the pursuit of nationalist, transactional international relations run counter to the many network processes and indeed habits of cooperative behaviour that digitalisation has created and which, if developed and used responsibly, can further foster these processes. That this is not happening is a current tragedy with short, medium, and if nothing is done, longer-term negative connotations for states and the societies for whom they purport to speak and act.
The internet continues to play vital roles in pro-democracy movements, in the delivery of vital independent journalism, and as a mode of communication on which civil society relies. Decentralised models offer alternative visions of infrastructure and governance. But choices must be made and regulations must be appropriately enacted if we are to secure a long-term, open internet.
Maybe when nationalist endeavours, driven by a greater desire for the mythical beast called sovereignty, fail to solve our problems, as they almost certainly will, collective action through reformed – but harder-headed – multilateral cooperation, operationalised in a digitally networked manner, may just prove increasingly relevant, desirable, and inevitable. Covid-19 and the manner in which it is addressed may well prove, one way or the other, to be a turning point in this process.
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