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Sovereignty in the Digital Age

We all talk about data sovereignty nowadays, but what does it really mean ?

Paul Timmers authored this recently and I felt that I really needed to share it.

The century-old concept of state sovereignty is acquiring new and hotly debated meaning, due to digital disruption and technology-without-borders, dominance by powerful—often foreign-owned—global tech companies, and cyber-undermining by malicious states. Sovereignty, as we know it, is also threatened by rising geopolitical tensions, war, and global challenges such as climate change, pandemics, and global cyber-crime. This chapter deals with the future of sovereignty in a digital and geopolitically contested age. It starts with an introduction into international relations, sovereignty, and strategic autonomy thinking. It reflects on the impact of digital technology on the international system of states. Then it provides an analysis and some practical guidance to tackle the challenges of developing public policy for sovereignty in the digital, and digital humanistic, age. Finally, two case studies and a set of questions invite the reader to a deeper dive.


Sovereignty means that states or countries have autonomy in how they manage their internal affairs. Consequently, countries should respect each other’s sovereignty. This is, of course, only one and a highly simplified Platonic ideal image of sovereignty. We will go deeper into the multiplicity of perspectives on sovereignty and international relations.

When we say sovereignty, generally here we are talking about state sovereignty rather than the sovereignty of an individual person. However, the two are closely related. Sovereignty concerns the power arrangements in society, notably between the citizens and the “state.” A government or ruler who is systematically not accepted by the people is in trouble. People in a country who are not accepted by the government or the ruler are in trouble. One way to arrange for the allocation of power between citizens and state is democracy and respect for fundamental human rights. These are two relational notions that link state and individual sovereignty. They are also at the heart of what digital humanism stands for.

Why would we spend time on such a century-old concept? The reason is that in today’s geopoliticized digital age, sovereignty is under severe pressure. There is a sovereignty gap between the aspirations for state sovereignty and hard reality (Kello, 2017). The hard reality consists of the threats of geopolitical conflict, the pervasively disruptive nature of digital technologies and big tech, and global threats such as cyber-crime, pandemic, and climate change (see Fig. 1). These three forces are not halted by the human-created borders between countries; they do not respect sovereignty. The international system of states is being disrupted and perhaps fundamentally reshaped. No wonder that heads of states are very worried. Since 2017, sovereignty and the related notion of strategic autonomy have been Chefsache. But they are not sitting ducks and have come forward with a multitude of public policies to safeguard, defend, and even strengthen sovereignty.

Sovereignty Gap

Fig. 1: Sovereignty gap


Here we focus on public policies that address the interplay of digital technologies and sovereignty. That is, public policy that shapes sovereignty and the digital age fit for what we want.

The central problem is to develop public policy for sovereignty in the digital age.

What we need for this is to shed light and to understand: to shed light on the possible shapes of sovereignty in the digital age, and the desired ones, which is a political choice, and to understand the interplay of technology and society. This is not easy at all. However, not addressing the problem leaves us in the hands of unaccountable powers, undemocratic authoritarians, and uncontrollable technology development. This would precisely be counter to what digital humanism is about. Sovereignty and geopolitics are key aspects of the reality that digital humanism seeks to influence.

We now first give a brief introduction to perspectives on international relations, sovereignty, and strategic autonomy. That puts us in a position to discuss the impact of digital technologies. Then we can address the challenges of developing public policy for sovereignty in the digital age and illustrate these by concrete cases in two hot topics of cybersecurity and artificial intelligence (AI).

If you wish to download the entire chapter on this topic (I recommend it) then please download it in PDF here:

Sovereignty in the Digital Age


Paul Timmers


Springer eBook


Springer Nature


Jan 1, 2024

Copyright © 2024, The Author(s)

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