Are we losing Digital sovereignty?

As a result of the global scandal caused by the trade war between United States and China, in which Huawei and Google have been the main protagonists, circumstances indicate that the new battlefield will no longer be the trenches but Internet, which was predictable in the context of a globalized information society.Although for now the war seems to involve only China, United States and, on some issues, Russia and Europe, it is inevitable that Latin America will be affected by this conflict. This makes it necessary to reflect on the digital sovereignty of our countries.

Does digital sovereignty exist and why is it relevant in today’s context?

As mass media were implemented in the world, governments started to regulate services, due to its strategic importance and their capacity to influence the masses.

Just as an example, let’s remember that Nazi advertising and the way it influenced one of the most cultured and advanced people for its time, it was leveraged on the penetration power of the mass media, specially radio and television, which showed that such media should be regulated.

Most Western countries decided to classify television and radio as a Public Service or as a Public Interest Service, which allowed to create may control and regulation mechanisms in order to protect the general interest and national sovereignty.  So much so that in many nations there are restrictions on foreign capital which invests in the national media.

Internet was born under a different umbrella, that of Network Neutrality, an implicit agreement between the agents that are part of Internet, with which a valuation of IP addresses as equals was promoted, without allowing telecommunications service providers to qualify much less sanction or privilege one service over another.

This principle has allowed the network to open, plural, democratic and participatory. However, it has also served to avoid regulation by States, creating a notable asymmetry with respect to traditional media and opening a risk factor that, although it has been warned for a long time, is only now becoming evident with recent events.

Global alarms are turned on

Although Digital Sovereignty is an incipient, framed within the technological sovereignty concept, there are more and more spaces and scenarios, in which this dimension is raised, which include a social, economic and political issue.

Chinese President XI Jinping has mentioned digital sovereignty in various speeches, while, since 2015, announcing that he would make China the largest “cyber superpower” or “national power in cyberspace” (wǎngluò qiangguó).

In the same sense, President Emmanuel Macron, in a speech on Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the Collège de France, raised the urgent need for an “European digital sovereignty”, stating that due to the current circumstances this is an issue that cannot only be addressed not only by a country, but by the community of countries as a whole.

On his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin, as we announced in a previous article, decided to launch a controversial project called the National Digital Economy Program, which forces Internet service providers to have the necessary resources to continue nationally operating, in case of being disconnected from Internet no matter how this happens, invoking the national sovereignty concept.

In United States, during the Barack Obama’s government, some of his speeches focused on cybersecurity and at times referred to the National Sovereignty concept, a risk that materialized with the alleged intervention of Russian hackers to favor the last Trump campaign. This in turn, in the name of the National Sovereignty of United States and the prevalence of its commercial interests, has launched the aforementioned trade war with China.

The Latin America’s case

Considering that this issue is hidden in Latin American agendas, the region has one of the highest concentrations of foreign corporations in the entire telecommunications sector and the entire digital spectrum. Not only do we depend on technologies in devises such as Huawei, Apple or Samsung, but as in other regions of the world, more than 50% of the traffic we consume on Internet is channeled by US companies such as Google, Facebook and Netflix. But the greatest risk exists in network providers, where concentration exceeds 80% of phone and Internet users, in the Claro hands (America Movil), Tigo (Millicom) and Telefonica, according to official figures provided by regulatory bodies.

From a realistic perspective, it is unlikely that Mexico will go to a (commercial or military) war with Colombia and that the Slim Group interests will affect the coffee nation, or that Peru will break relations with Spain and that the Telefonica interests affect Peruvians, since neither Slim depends on the Mexico’s government, nor  Telefonica obeys the King of Spain, and much less Millicom will superimpose the Sweden or Luxemburg interests over its business.

The risk with large corporations is not the geographical origin, but in the corporate interests of the organizations. As indicated by the case of Facebook and Cambridge Analytics, they influence political campaigns, which is also obvious in the permanent presence of Claro, Telefonica, DirecTV and Millicom, in legislative agendas and executive throughout the region.

The Latin American countries have totally lost their presence in the digital field, so the threat to sovereignty can be identified on three main fronts: technology providers, network providers and content providers, which dominate 100% of our markets, they have the capacity to influence the citizens decisions and, if any time they want, can disconnect us from Internet.

In conclusion, digital sovereignty is already part of the political and legislative agenda of the great global powers, which, due to the lack of Internet regulation and control by large corporations, they have started to take measures against threats arising from the services monopolization, dependence on some Internet providers and the lack of balance in technology markets.

In the Latin America’s case, it is urgent that governments react to the latent risk involved in losing digital sovereignty, without promoting nationalism, protectionism or alarmism. They should start to regulate digital technologies, media and services, seeking to guarantee the stability of our economies and develop consensual and cross-sectional regulations to protect the citizens’ rights.


By: Gabriel E. Levy B