16th German Digital Summit: International panel on digital sovereignty

General

How can we shape digital sovereignty in a globalised world? On 20 November 2023, the German Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport (BMDV) hosted a panel on this question at the Digital Summit of the German Government in Jena, Germany. The panellists concluded that international cooperation, not isolation, is key to successfully strengthen digital sovereignty.

The panel took place in a hybrid format. © Digital Dialogues-GIZ

BMDV welcomed renowned guests from the public and private sector to discuss the challenges and priorities in strengthening digital sovereignty: Stefan Schnorr, State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport (BMDV); Eliud Owalo, Cabinet Secretary at the Kenyan Ministry for Information, Communications and The Digital Economy; Dr Francisco Gaetani, Extraordinary State Secretary for State Transformation at the Brazilian Ministry for Management and Innovation; Dr Marianne Janik, CEO of Microsoft Germany; and Paul de Bot, General Manager Europe, Middle East, Africa (EMEA) of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC).

The speakers effectively demonstrated how choice and skills, cooperation with like-minded partners and the impact of regulatory frameworks are significant and interconnected elements in the global discourse on digital sovereignty.

Control and skills enabling sovereign choice

In defining digital sovereignty, the panellists pointed out that digital knowledge as well as the control over one’s own data are central aspects and the individual basis of digital sovereignty. Investing in human resources, especially in youth and digital skills are areas that all speakers agreed on as crucial in becoming digitally sovereign. The private sector plays a pivotal role in this effort. TSMC, for example, plans to partner with universities to develop skills and knowledge necessary for the industry, while Microsoft offers online courses on digital matters.

To strengthen data sovereignty, Brazil sees a strong role of public enterprises to roll out digitalisation programmes while Germany is pursuing an approach of collaboration with private partners to develop the necessary technologies.

Cooperation with like-minded partners

The panellists also stated that being sovereign does not mean striving for isolation and self-sufficiency. On the contrary, it requires cooperation with like-minded partners, both between nation-states and between governments and the private sector. The room for independent choices of technologies, regulatory approaches, digital solutions and the means to produce and acquire these can only be enlarged through cooperation and technical harmonization.

Minister Owalo gave the example of the Smart Africa Alliance that is working towards a single digital market on the African continent by involving strategic partners from businesses and states. State Secretary Schnorr introduced BMDV’s International Digital Dialogues, a multi-stakeholder platform that facilitates bilateral exchange and partnerships on digital policy topics with partner countries such as Brazil and Kenya.

The panellists also underlined that during periods marked by uncertainty, it is crucial to enhance geographical flexibility in order to tap into different markets and resources. TSMC’s planned semiconductor factory in Dresden is an example of a public-private cooperation that is vital for the tech landscape in Europe.

Regulation and innovation

Lastly, the speakers highlighted the importance of establishing rules for emerging technologies and data use. Ms Janik stressed that common rules are necessary to establish a clear framework, particularly for the secure application of AI. The speakers concurred that a framework of guidelines for the use of data and technologies enables stakeholders to maintain sovereignty over their resources while at the same time facilitating partnerships through harmonisation.

The panel closed with a discussion round in which the audience voiced their questions. In the end, the panellists agreed that digital sovereignty is a complex and important topic that can only be achieved by working together across countries and sectors.

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