What is cyber sovereignty?

Europe is one of the three main regions of cyber sovereignty, along with the United States and China.

Sovereignty is a concept that is historically linked to the idea of a physical territory, whereas the digital world is profoundly dematerialized and virtual. So what does the notion of cyber sovereignty mean? It combines the economic strength of online platforms, digital technologies and regulations based on new societal values. Francis Jutand, Deputy CEO of IMT and member of the Scientific Council of the Institut de la Souveraineté Numérique (Institute of Cyber Sovereignty), presents his view on the foundations of this concept.


What does it mean to be “sovereign”?

Francis Jutand: The notion of sovereignty can apply to individuals, companies or nations. To be sovereign is to be able to choose. This means being able to both understand and act. Sovereignty is therefore based on a number of components for taking action: technological development, economic and financial autonomy (and therefore power), and the ability to influence regulatory mechanisms. In addition to these three conditions, there is security, in the sense that being sovereign also means being in a space where you can protect yourself from the potential hostility of others. The fifth and final parameter of sovereignty for large geographical areas, such as nations or economic spaces, is the people’s ability to make their voices heard.

How does this notion of sovereignty apply in the case of digital technology?

FJ: The five components of the ability to act transpose naturally into this field. Being sovereign in a digital world means having our own technology and being independent from major economic players in the sector, such as Google, and their huge financial capacity. It also means developing specific regulations on digital technology and being able to protect against cyber-attacks. As far as the general public is concerned, sovereignty consists in training citizens to understand and use digital technology in an informed way. Based on these criteria, three main zones of cyber sovereignty can be defined around three geographical regions: the United States, Europe and China.

What makes these zones of sovereignty so distinct?

FJ: The American zone is based on economic superpowers and powerful national policy on security and technology operated by government agencies. On the other hand, the state of their regulation in the cyber field is relatively weak. China relies on an omnipresent state with strict regulation and major investments. After its scientific and industrial backwardness in this area, China has caught up over the past few years. Lastly, Europe has good technological skills in both industry and academia, but is not in a leading position. In its favor, the region of European sovereignty has strong market power and pioneering regulations based on certain values, such as the protection of personal data. Its biggest weakness is its lack of economic leadership that could lead to the existence of global digital players.

How is the concept of sovereignty embodied in concrete terms in Europe?

FJ: Europe and its member countries are already investing at a high level in the digital field, through the European Framework Programmes, as well as national programs and ongoing academic research. On the other hand, the small number of world-class companies in this field weakens the potential for research and fruitful collaborations between the academic and industrial worlds. The European Data Protection Board, which is composed of the national data protection authorities of the European Union member states, is another illustration of sovereignty work in the European zone. However, from the point of view of regulations concerning competition law and financial regulation, Europe is still lagging behind in the development of laws and is unassertive in their interpretation. This makes it vulnerable to lobbies as shown by the debates on the European directive on copyright.

How does the notion of cyber sovereignty affect citizens?

FJ: Citizens are consumers and users of cyber services. They play a major role in this field, as most of their activities generate personal data. They are a driving force of the digital economy, which, we must remember, is one of the five pillars of sovereignty. This data, which directly concerns users’ identity, is also governed by regulations. Citizens’ expression is therefore very important in the constitution of an area of sovereignty.

Why is the academic world concerned by this issue of cyber sovereignty?

FJ: Researchers, whether from IMT or other institutions, have insights to provide on cyber sovereignty. They are at the forefront of the development and control of new technology, which is also one of the conditions of sovereignty. They train students and work with companies to disseminate this technology. IMT and its schools are active in all these areas. We therefore also have a role to play, notably by using our neutrality to inform our parliamentarians. We have experimented in this sense with an initial event for deputies and senators on the theme of technological and regulatory sovereignty. Our researchers discussed the potential impacts of technology on citizens, businesses and the economy in general.


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