The digital debate is now about trade and security and every major nation is insisting on its technological sovereignty
Amid the hand-wringing about the rise of nationalism and populism, it’s easy to miss that the past two years have also produced surprising and useful shifts in global opinion. Even Donald Trump can be good news for the world.
Nowhere is this gestalt shift more evident than in how we approach policy dilemmas related to technology. The idea of “digital” as a magic, untouchable realm that was to bring prosperity to all, one disruption at a time, is now dead. The thorny questions are no longer the prerogative of affluent hippies at Wired magazine or TED talks; instead, they are returning to their original realms of international trade, national economic development and security.
Governments, which have been deemed too clumsy to act in the “digital” age, are now back in the game, taking a far more interventionist approach and insisting on technological sovereignty.
Last week’s revelation, in a Bloomberg news report, that China might have embedded microchips in the hardware used by America’s leading tech firms, should be no surprise. Beijing, with its new cybersecurity law and its overall push towards global supremacy in artificial intelligence, might seem like a rogue actor on the international scene. However, it’s hardly alone in promoting its technological agenda.
Russia has announced plans to require civil servants to use locally produced mobile phones running on locally produced software. To make that mission easier, Rostelecom, its state-controlled telecoms giant, bought the two companies behind Sailfish OS, a mobile operating system developed by Nokia.
India, to the ire of US companies, wants foreign tech and payment firms to store data locally, ostensibly for national security reasons but invoking the need to maintain its technological sovereignty as well. Some of its domestic heavyweights – already in close partnerships with Chinese tech giants – welcomed this, hoping that it could level the playing field with US tech platforms.
Italy’s ruling Five Star Movement and Lega coalition, no stranger to either controversy or bad policy, has moved in a similar direction, vowing to block the sale of Sparkle, a major fibre operator. Add to this a recent internal EU policy paper that underlines the security implications of Europe’s dependence on the hardware of China’s Huawei.
Remarkably, technological sovereignty is also of great appeal to countries that fashion themselves as cosmopolitan and internationalist alternatives to Trump’s nationalist project: France and Germany.
Thus, the French defence minister has announced she wants to “lower [France’s] exposure to US components” as its intelligence agencies try to find local alternatives to the services of Peter Thiel’s Palantir, a firm with close connections to Washington. At the end of July, an MP from President Macron’s centrist party even asked the government if it would establish a commission on digital sovereignty whose goal would be to “make the French authorities autonomous from the all-powerful” US tech firms.
Germany, whose chancellor, Angela Merkel, was describing the internet as “virgin territory” only five years ago, has changed as well. Having seen the jewels of its robotics and technology industry snapped up by foreign – especially Chinese investors – Berlin is no longer shy to use its veto to block acquisitions while reportedly mulling the possibility of establishing a dedicated national fund that could take stakes in important German tech firms
Denying such plans, a spokeswoman for the economy ministry nonetheless acknowledged that the government was “looking into creating a mechanism with the aim of securing the technological sovereignty of German industry”. A recent memorandum of understanding signed between the interior ministry and Germany’s leading business association lauds the development of products and services that would “reduce Germany’s high dependence on foreign technologies”.
If you are not for technological sovereignty, then what are you for? The common answer used to be globalisation and open trade. Today, however, there are no governments that can convincingly preach further liberalisation of trade in data, software or hardware. All governments, thus, are forced to choose between two options: reasserting technological sovereignty – or doing nothing, for lack of good ideas or power or because of domestic political strife (see Britain).
The tone of the debate is harsher than it used to be; “digital” is no longer the cure-all it once was. But what it lacks in decency, today’s debate easily makes up in realism, for the stakes are much clearer: we are no longer debating the abstract merits of “digitalisation” but the consequences of leaving strategic industries under foreign control.
Now that the White House has issued a strategy authorising offensive military cyber-operations, national digital infrastructure resilience cannot be assumed. If Barack Obama authorised the tapping of Merkel’s phone, would Trump resist the temptation?Evgeny Morozov is the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom
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