Part 1 of the Digital Sovereignty Series
The relentless waves of digital censorship we have seen since 2020 have alerted us to just how easy it is to abuse technology in aid of authoritarian means. One consequence to this has been the rapid adoption of apps like Telegram as an outlet of free expression, allowing for continued dissent against the totalitarian dictat of the 21st century. More than ever, people are asking “how can we best use technology to support humanity, and not destroy humanity?”
Displayed above is Over To The Youth’s very first article, written by founder Rain Trozzi. This piece was written over a year prior to this article, which begins to explore some means of escaping the digital enslavement systems being used to facilitate the technocratic agendas we are seeing. On revisiting this piece recently, two thoughts came to mind. Firstly, while we are seeing great advances in many other fields like healthcare and farming that seek to reduce our reliance on centralised, top-down control systems, I believe there is still much more to be done in the realm of technology. Secondly, I feel there is scope to expand and update much of the information included in that original article, with a focus on “digital sovereignty”.
I believe the kinds of digital technologies that are still used by many of us, including those for internet searches, online payments, sending digital messages and more are able to be abused as, at their core, they are not built around digital sovereignty. In this article, I will explore what digital sovereignty means to me and some means I use of measuring how good applications and software are at respecting digital sovereignty. I intend for this to be accessible even for those who don’t consider themselves “tech-savvy”. As such, if there’s anything that doesn’t make sense here, I would highly recommend leaving a comment below and, if appropriate, I will be happy to update and expand on this article accordingly.
What is Digital Sovereignty?
For me, digital sovereignty is the ability to:
- Decide where and when you use digital technology (and where you don’t use it!)
- Control and own your own digital assets
- Know how different technologies you interact with use your digital assets
- Control who and what gets access to those assets
- Withdraw a particular technology’s access to your data without penalty
Legislation in numerous jurisdictions, such as the EU and the UK with GDPR/Data Protection acts, supposedly protects the kinds of priveliges listed above in law. However, such legislation seems to be a poor way of promoting digital sovereignty, not least through relying on unelected, unaccountable organisations as the arbiter of claims, who we know from other industries can have questionable relationships with the governments or companies they are supposed to be regulating. On a practical level, processes set out in legislation on how claims of improper data management should be managed often ends up being very bureaucratic and cumbersome. Companies like those in Big Tech are also required to be honest about what they’re doing and to follow the law. There are plenty of examples to show this isn’t a given, partly as the fines issued often mean very little to companies with such large profits. On a more philosophical level, there is a reasonable case to be made that we should not have to rely on a legal system to award us sovereignty of our own lives, including the part of our lives that uses a digital space
To me, it seems like a far better solution is to actively design technologies around these principles rather than trying to retro-fit these on existing technologies in indirect ways. Thankfully, I think there are many technologies which are already doing just that.
Indicators of Digital Sovereignty
Before going into some examples of technologies that I think do a good job of incorporating the idea of digital sovereignty, I’d like to define a few terms and ideas that are generally good indicators that a certain application or technology is trying to respect digital sovereignty.
Open-source refers to an application or piece of software which all its code is available for the public to view and modify, with varying conditions on how the code can and can’t be used. In my view, this gives rise to two advantages for those concerned about digital sovereignty. Firstly, if the code is publicly available, it is much easier to check whether the program is actually using someone’s data and assets in the way the creator says it is. Secondly, it allows for anyone else to make new versions of the software that suit their needs, or to suggest changes that get incorporated into existing software.
This second point stands out to me as it really lends itself to a decentralised way of working, and collaboration over hostile competition. Programmers and developers all around the world can contribute to a program or application’s development. Then, if the programmer or team who first created the software can no longer work on the project, all the code is there for someone else to independently revive the project. For an example on how this has impacted me, one program I was looking at to run phone applications on my computer, was discontinued by the original developer earlier this year. However, a completely separate group took that code and turned it into Waydroid, without needing to start from scratch.
Next, let’s talk about encrypted technologies. Encryption can be thought of as a process that converts a human-readable message into a secret code. This code can then be sent, in our case, across the internet, then only someone who has the right information can covert that code back into original human-readable message. This means anyone who tries to access the message without the “key” to convert it back into a human-readable form will find it very difficult to do so.
Encryption is not a new idea, and the development of computing technology is closely connected with the desire for encryption. Even prior to the start of World War Two, the Nazi forces used a form of encryption in their Enigma devices to scramble the alphabets used in their secret communications. Through a combination of spies, human error when sending out messages, and weaknesses resulting from Nazi procedures, such as infering how texts were encoded through comparing similar messages sent on different days (like weather reports), Polish forces were able to devise semi-automated ways of decoding these messages as early as 1932. Although improvements were made to the Nazi system over time, Allied forces were generally able to keep up, culminating in the development of a computer by Alan Turing to automate most of this process, without needing to rely on humans or spies doing much of the heavy lifting.
Modern-day forms of encryption used in sending data over the internet are far more complex than those seen in World War Two, with some being practically impossible for computers to “crack” without knowing the “key” used to encode each individual message. Understandably, this poses somewhat of a threat to intelligence agencies of the world’s governments who are keen to spy on its adversaries (and citizens). This may explain why governments are keen to be able to bypass all forms of encryption, both for Big Tech platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger and beyond. While this might be feasible on Big Tech platforms, who might be pressured into giving up “keys” to allow governments to easily decode messages, projects that incorporate principles of digital sovereignty may be more resillient to such attempts through appropriately-designed encryption methods, as well as the ability to make new versions of software should one system become compromised by having its encryption method “broken” or circumvented.
When thinking about this risk of censorship, one other way to mitigate this is through designing programs in a decentralised way. When communicating with others over the internet, decentralised services will not rely on one, centrally-controlled server, such as the likes of Facebook, Twitter and even Telegram do. Instead, multiple servers, run independently around the world, using the same software, all work together to allow someone to communicate over the internet. If an authoritarian-minded regime wanted to close down a server as a means of preventing someone’s access to that technology, it likely wouldn’t work, as:
1) The system can continue running, just using different servers
2) New servers can be started by other individuals around the world at any time
3) Backups of data can also be stored on other servers, making it highly difficult to stop the flow of information.
This decentralised approach is exactly how Bitcoin works. It relies on multiple independent servers around the world to process payments rather than a computer at a central or corporate bank. If one server goes down, the payment will simply be made through a different server and is often automatically re-routed. Many of these systems are generally resistant to hackers as, if the software they are running on their end to try and join a network of servers is too heavily modified, other servers will refuse to connect to it.
Decentralised technology is not just restricted to Bitcoin either. There are many different ways of implementing this idea in different kinds of software, such as social media, search engines and file sharing. In Part 2 of the Digital Sovereignty series, we will explore and compare some of the different offerings in this space.
Bringing It All Together
When ideas around open-source, encryption and decentralisation are combined in one piece of software, that software is likely going to be very resistant to malicious manipulation, promoting digital sovereignty through giving significant control and security to users about how their digital assets are used.
The only challenge with this approach, however, is that there can be a learning curve for people who are new to the idea of decentralised communications. It doesn’t help sometimes that a lot of these decentralised technologies, not least Bitcoin, have previously been (and sometimes still are) “explained” using lots of technical computer-speak and relying on people having quite detailed knowledge about how computers. Until recently, such technology has really not been of interest to the general public, and thus has remained confined to niche communities like software development or high-stakes journalism.
However, with the past few years demonstrating how all of us are vulnerable to the same means of censorship and suppression, there is now a clear place for these technologies amongst anyone who values their own personal autonomy and sovereignty, and not just niche groups. Hopefully, this will drive technology to become more accessible to any level of understanding, or lead to the development of informational pieces like this series, helping people level-up their own understanding and open up more opportunities for continued development of good technology. There may still be dark days for humanity and its sovereignty ahead, but we already have plenty of tools, analog and digital, that will help bring us into the light. So let’s learn how to best use them.
Feel free to use the following resources if you’d like to explore some of the ideas mentioned in this piece further:
- jeff.pro – an initiative by Jeffrey Peterson looking at promoting open-source technology amongst the general population
- Take Back Our Tech – an initiative by Ramiro Romani looking at ways of using technology for good.
- The Free Software Foundation (FSF) – a non-profit group dedicated to promoting the adoption of open-source technology