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Digital solidarity vs. digital sovereignty: Which side are you on?

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The landscape of international cyber policy continues to evolve rapidly, reflecting the dynamic nature of technology and global geopolitics. Central to this evolution are two competing concepts: digital solidarity and digital sovereignty.

The U.S. Department of State, through its newly released International Cyberspace and Digital Policy Strategy, has articulated a clear preference for digital solidarity, positioning it as a counterpoint to the protectionist approach of digital sovereignty.

What are the main differences between these two concepts, and why does it matter? Let’s find out.

What is digital solidarity?

Digital solidarity emphasizes collaboration and mutual support among nations to reach shared technological and economic goals. This approach, unveiled on May 6, 2024, during the RSA Conference, highlights the U.S. commitment to building an open, resilient and secure digital ecosystem. Digital solidarity involves working closely with international partners to align regulations, share best practices and respond jointly to cyberattacks.

Key components of digital solidarity include:

  1. Promote an inclusive digital ecosystem: By fostering a competitive market for digital technologies, the U.S. aims to spur innovation and reduce reliance on authoritarian regimes. Key to this effort is enabling emerging economies to have access to robust and secure digital infrastructure. This involves deploying secure telecommunications infrastructure, expanding cloud service access and enhancing the security of undersea cables.

  2. Align governance approaches: This entails developing and promoting common standards and policies for data governance that respect human rights and facilitate the free flow of data across borders. Initiatives like the Global Cross-Border Privacy Rules (CBPR) Forum aim to harmonize data privacy frameworks. The goal is to ensure data security while supporting international trade and economic development.

  3. Advance responsible state behavior: Establishing and enforcing norms for state conduct in cyberspace is crucial for global security. This includes promoting cooperation, information sharing and accountability among nations. Cyber norms agreements aim to create a stable global cyberspace where states adhere to agreed principles.

  4. Strengthen cyber capacity: Enhancing the technical and operational capabilities of partner nations will bolster their cyber defenses. To this end, the U.S. provides technical assistance, training and resources through initiatives like the Cyberspace, Digital Connectivity and Related Technologies Fund. The goal is to ensure countries have the knowledge and tools to protect their digital infrastructure.

The rise of digital sovereignty

In contrast, digital sovereignty is characterized by a nation’s desire to control its digital infrastructure and data flows through more protectionist measures. This approach can involve restricting foreign access to domestic markets, mandating data localization and favoring local companies over international competitors.

Digital sovereignty proponents argue that by having tighter control over infrastructure and data, nations can better protect against malicious activities. They also believe that fostering local tech industries and reducing dependence on foreign technology helps them to ensure economic stability and growth.

The U.S. and other critics of digital sovereignty warn that these policies can lead to fragmented global internet governance, thereby increasing cybersecurity risks and hampering innovation. By isolating digital ecosystems and erecting barriers to international collaboration, digital sovereignty can undermine the collective efforts needed to address global cyber threats and advance technological progress.

Impacts on national cybersecurity

The choice between digital solidarity and digital sovereignty has significant implications for national cybersecurity. Digital solidarity fosters a cooperative international environment where nations can share threat intelligence, coordinate cyber incident response and develop common defenses against shared threats. This collaborative approach enhances the overall security posture of participating countries and makes it harder for malicious actors to exploit gaps in national defenses.

Conversely, digital sovereignty can lead to siloed security practices and a lack of coordination among nations. By prioritizing national control over international cooperation, countries may find themselves isolated in their efforts to combat sophisticated cyber threats. This isolation can make it easier for adversaries to launch attacks with impunity. A piecemeal global response reduces the effectiveness of collective defense measures.

Meanwhile, state-sponsored actors could benefit from the legitimacy provided by state control over digital infrastructure. Intruders could exploit state-sanctioned channels or use state-owned enterprises as fronts for their activities. This makes it harder to distinguish between legitimate state actions and criminal activities.

Moving forward with digital solidarity

The U.S. strategy underscores the importance of digital solidarity in shaping a secure and prosperous digital future. By working with allies and partners, the U.S. aims to build a robust and inclusive digital ecosystem that supports innovation, protects human rights and enhances global security. This approach involves significant diplomatic efforts as well as investments in cybersecurity infrastructure and international governance agreements.

Key initiatives under this strategy include:

  1. Developing AI governance frameworks: Establishing international standards for the ethical use of AI (prevent misuse / promote benefits) is key to digital solidarity. This includes working with partners through the G7 and other forums to create guidelines for the development of AI technologies.

  2. Enhancing supply chain security: This entails collaborating with partners to diversify and secure supply chains for critical technologies like semiconductors and cloud services. The U.S. is investing in domestic production and working with allies to create resilient and secure supply chains that reduce dependency on authoritarian regimes.

  3. Promoting cyber norms: This includes advocating for global norms that define acceptable state behavior in cyberspace and hold violators accountable. The hope is that the UN and other international bodies will develop agreements on cyber norms and assist member states in enforcing these norms.

Ongoing tensions

The debate between digital solidarity and digital sovereignty reflects broader tensions in international relations and governance philosophies. While digital sovereignty offers a sense of control and protection, it risks isolating nations and undermining collective security efforts.

Digital solidarity, on the other hand, promotes a cooperative and inclusive approach to cyber diplomacy. As nations navigate this complex landscape, the principles of digital solidarity outlined by the U.S. strategy provide a compelling framework for addressing the challenges of the digital age.

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