Digital Sovereignty: Voices from Latin America

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Digital sovereignty has become a trending topic in Europe. But what is happening in the rest of the world? Is digital sovereignty solely of interest to major powers, despite citizens of developing and least developed countries being those most negatively impacted by the lack of digital sovereignty? In trying to address these questions, it may be worth looking at one of the first voices of concern about this topic to reach the highest political spheres in Latin America.

In recent years, digital sovereignty has become a trending topic in Europe. In 2020 alone, French President Emmanuel Macron claimed that Europe’s freedom of action depended on its economic and digital sovereignty, and the German government declared in its programme for the Presidency of the EU Council its aim of establishing “digital sovereignty as a leitmotiv of European digital policy.” The Strategic Compass, endorsed by EU leaders in March 2022, mentions a need to achieve technological sovereignty in certain critical areas in order to “meet the challenges of a more dangerous world.” Digital – or technological – sovereignty has thus become a ubiquitous component of European strategic documents, plans, and conferences addressing the future of the Union, and although few seem to have a clear understanding of what this really entails and what implications it has, there is some consensus on its importance.

This is definitely not just a European debate. Outside the Western world, digital sovereignty has also ranked high among the strategic priorities of the last ten years in both China and Russia – although in these two cases the concept that is most often used is that of cyber sovereignty – and to some extent in India as well. And in the rest of the world? Is digital sovereignty also a relevant topic in the Global South, or solely of interest to major powers, despite citizens of developing and least developed countries being those most negatively impacted by the lack of digital sovereignty? In trying to address these questions, it may be worth looking at one of the first voices of concern about this topic to reach the highest political spheres in Latin America.

On 16 August, a group bringing together hundreds of Brazilian researchers, academics, and activists delivered a letter to the Workers’ Party (PT) presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva entitled “Emergency Program for Digital Sovereignty.” In the letter, the signatories argue that Brazil’s scientific and digital development cannot continue to rely on the products and services offered by a few large technology companies, which accentuate the country’s dependence on international capital and limit the growth of the local business environment. Moreover, they denounce a business model based on the growing extraction, accumulation, processing, and manipulation of human data, all of which allow these tech companies to continue accumulating power, offering products and services under asymmetrical and abusive conditions.

They thus propose a nine-point programme, including the establishment of a federated infrastructure to house data from Brazilian universities and research institutes, the financing of local data centers; and the launch of an interdisciplinary program to train and retain scientists and technicians, funding R&D centers aimed at the development of solutions in Artificial Intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, local chip development, and high-speed communication networks, among others. Beyond the actual feasibility of these proposals, the letter puts the spotlight on a topic that so far has not been present in the political agendas of Latin American countries and yet is becoming increasingly important at the global level.

Let’s first take a step back and consider the very idea of sovereignty. Throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the growing power of non-state actors, and the advancement of globalization in all areas, the prevailing idea at both the political and academic levels was that the state, as the most important unit of the international order, was losing relevance. The explosion of the Internet and the growth of transnational data flows fed the interpretation of national borders as an outdated construct in the current globalized world. Westphalian sovereignty seemed to be losing steam, and national borders appeared to be meaningless in a world of deep interconnections. In recent years, however, sovereignty has returned to the forefront of global discussions. Today, particularly since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, sovereignty – and the question of how to maintain or regain it – is on everyone’s lips.

The world of digital technologies, convulsed by the 2007 cyberattack on Estonia, the Edward Snowden NSA revelations, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, among other major developments, did not remain on the sidelines of this debate. Since the early 2010s, the idea of “digital” or “technological” sovereignty has begun to take shape in political dialogues around the world, particularly within Europe. Faced with the advance of digitalization on all fronts, the growing power of a few tech companies, and the deepening of the US-China technological competition, several governments and organizations around the world have voiced concern about their countries’ or citizens’ digital sovereignty.

Today, whether within liberal democracies or in nondemocratic countries, the concept of digital sovereignty is becoming increasingly present in public debate, and yet there remains significant confusion over its meaning and practical implications. For instance, the terms of digital sovereignty, cyber sovereignty, and data sovereignty are often used interchangeably, although they do not necessarily imply the same policies. In any case, the concept of digital sovereignty throughout most definitions seems to involve some kind of control over digital content and digital infrastructure, but this is as far as the consensus goes.

For some, it is crucial to achieve digital sovereignty for their country or region in the midst of the so-called “Tech Cold War” between the US and China. For others, it is the individuals, citizens, or communities who have to regain sovereignty over their own data in the face of the advance of big tech companies and their intrusive business models. In the case of the former, digital sovereignty usually involves, among other things, policies to stimulate the local business environment and the local infrastructure, as well as data localization measures; for the latter, the focus tends to be more on the development and implementation of free software and hardware, along with the promotion of digital literacy initiatives.

The question of what it means to have digital sovereignty in a world in which states continue to have the last word in defining their internal and external policies, but which has undoubtedly been shaped by data flows and the global nature of the Internet, seems to open up a wide range of definitions and rationales. Mueller (2019) argues that those who want to apply the notion of sovereignty to cyberspace are seeking to replicate traditional institutions in a whole new sociotechnical system. This is not only technically inadequate, as it ignores the complexity of cyberspace, but also dangerous, since such efforts could ultimately lead to a fundamental reordering of cyberspace.

It would be a fair to say that the concept of digital sovereignty raises more questions than answers. Not only is there no consensus on the sovereign subject, or on whether it makes any sense to use notions created for the analogue world to explain the logics of the digital universe, but it is also unclear what the latter implies. As emerging technologies advance, the “digital” becomes increasingly complex and difficult to grasp. Attempting to apply universal notions to radically different contexts, in turn, makes the debate even more difficult. Just as digital or cyber sovereignty is interpreted one way in authoritarian countries and in a completely different way in democratic countries, the idea of greater control over data flows by the state may raise concerns in developing countries where there tends to be less trust in public institutions. Concepts that may be appropriate in one context may be misleading or obfuscate a needed public debate in another.

What about Brazil?

Digital sovereignty has clearly not been high on the political agenda in Brazil or in any other Latin American country, arguably because most countries in the region face a number of daunting challenges that are – or rather, should be – the priorities of any political party in government today: poverty, criminality, drug trafficking, corruption, inflation, and so on. In a country where 16% of the population has nothing to eat, one might imagine that this is no time to be concerned about digital sovereignty. Becerra and Waisbord (2021) argued along similar lines in a recent article, observing that digital sovereignty has not been of concern to Latin American countries as of late, something which could be explained, in part, by the fact that “cybernationalism and sovereignty are tied to the geopolitics of world superpowers.”

That said, it is also true that Brazil has been one of the countries that has taken the greatest steps forward in terms of data sovereignty, cybersecurity and the protection of digital rights within Latin America. The 2014 enactment of the Marco Civil da Internet set an important precedent both regionally and globally in terms of the protection of users’ rights in the digital sphere. That same year, during an EU-Brazil summit held in Brussels, then-President Dilma Rousseff announced the installation of an undersea cable linking her country and Portugal (and therefore the EU). The initiative came on the heels of Edward Snowden’s 2013 disclosures, which showed that the NSA had carried out a global surveillance program under which, among many other things, it had accessed emails, text messages and phone conversations of President Rousseff, her aides, and other important Brazilian figures. Given that the NSA had accessed much of the information through the tapping of existing fiber optic cables that routed through Florida, Rousseff’s announcement came as a surprise to no one.

“We have to respect privacy, human rights and the sovereignty of nations,” she stated regarding the announced fiber cable, showing that technological projects are rarely detached from political and strategic considerations. The cable, named EllaLink, became operational in 2021 and is the first to directly connect South America with Europe. Another of the most notable policies in this regard has been the passing, in 2018, of the Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados (or LGPD), the local version of the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

It would be rather difficult to predict the probability of digital sovereignty gaining more traction on Brazil’s political agenda in the coming years. However, the fact that this letter has reached the hands of a leading presidential candidate of the largest country in Latin America can already be interpreted as an important step forward. It implies that this is starting to be an area of concern not just for a handful of Brazilian tech experts and practitioners, and that just as it is an important ongoing debate in other parts of the world, sooner or later it will also be so in the South American giant.

Indeed, far from being a vestige of outdated ideological discussions, as many see it, digital sovereignty is an increasingly salient topic on the agenda of many countries around the world that are looking at how to safeguard their margins of autonomy in the digital era. In previous centuries, Latin America was the setting for numerous power struggles between the major powers, in many cases with disastrous consequences for its population. In the coming decades, Latin American countries will have to find the best way to balance the interests of Washington and Beijing in the region, and in this quest, digital sovereignty will be an increasingly critical topic. We better start taking notice.