Digital Borders and Technological Sovereignty: An Event Recap

Blog Post
Sept. 30, 2014

Since June 2013, senior officials from Brasilia to Berlin have advanced proposals to protect data from foreign surveillance and gain “technological sovereignty,” potentially reshaping the Internet as we know it. The political traction of these proposals and their implications for the future of an open and free Internet were amongst the topics discussed at last week’s panel event at New America. Panelists discussed how proposals such as data localization, stronger encryption, and greater support for domestic IT industry have emerged in Europe and South America, and the implications of these efforts for drawing more distinct borders in cyberspace.

Opening remarks were made by OTI Director, Alan Davidson and GPPi Director, Thorsten Benner who commented on the importance of strengthening transatlantic dialogue on cyber issues. The panel discussed whether many of the proposals would achieve their purported goal of protecting data from foreign surveillance, and discussed the motivations of government officials and foreign IT companies behind these efforts.

Speaking on data localization proposals in Brazil, Carolina Rossini, Vice President for International Policy at Public Knowledge, was skeptical that storing Brazilian data on servers inside Brazil would solve the problem of foreign surveillance, as data circulates around backbone cables, and foreign intelligence agencies have proven their ability to intercept communications around the world.

Ansgar Baums, the Director of Government Relations for Hewlett Packard in Germany explained how this debate has been obscured by the term technological sovereignty itself, which has been invoked in the German debate to describe a number of different issues, including individual privacy, the protection of government infrastructure from foreign surveillance, as well as the asymmetry of power between German and US companies.

Joseph Nye, a member of the Global Commission on Internet Governance and former Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government provided context for the debates taking place in Brazil and Germany, by placing recent proposals for technological sovereignty within a larger global trend that has seen states attempting to reconcile the increasing importance of the Internet and data management with the traditional notion of state sovereignty. He also differentiated between efforts to place the Internet under state control, and the many ways that ICTs are transforming states.

The event titled, ‘Digital Borders and Technological Sovereignty: Breaking or Saving the Internet as We Know It’ was part of a joint project between New America’s Open Technology Institute and the Global Public Policy Institute called ‘Transatlantic Dialogues on Security and Freedom in the Digital Age.’ For more information on the event, read the GPPi recap of the event. For archived footage of last Friday’s discussion, see the video embedded in this post or visit the event page.