Digital Disillusionment

The idea of a “free and open Internet” seems on the way out. Instead, “digital sovereignty” has become a global buzzword, including in the EU and its member states. In an essay for the Weizenbaum Journal of the Digital Society, WZB researcher Julia Pohle takes a look at the motivations of European policy-makers pushing for more control of the digital sphere.

She argues for a shift in the belief system underlying European perceptions of the Internet. The long-dominant vision of the “free and open Internet” held that digital networks had created a new kind of space beyond outside control, characterized by decentralization, openness and equality. This view of network technology promoting liberal norms was shaken by the realization of several dependencies: Firstly, Europe depends on data networks which, far from defying outside control, are being used by intelligence services and powerful political actors for their purposes. Secondly, Europe depends for this infrastructure mostly on private IT companies not based in Europe. Market concentration has allowed a small number of these companies to achieve control over large sections of virtual space. And lastly, Europe is dependent in its digital development on global political and economic power dynamics in which it needs to position itself.

In Julia Pohle’s view, these realizations lead to disillusionment with the ideal of the “free and open Internet”, which could not live up to its promises. Apprehensions about digital technology then made the concept of “digital sovereignty” attractive, which aims at strengthening self-determination and decision-making capacity in this field. Ultimately, the debate around this concept may be a step towards a new vision of the digital sphere. Julia Pohle warns, however, that keeping “sovereignty” in harmony with democratic values and human rights may prove just as difficult as keeping the Internet “free and open”.

15/2/2024 MSt