Digital Sovereignty and Digital Citizenship Workshop – Executive Summary

On 28 June 2021,  the UCD Centre for Digital Policy, as part of our collaboration with Microsoft, organised and hosted a workshop, Digital Sovereignty and Digital Citizenship: Towards Participatory Policy. By proposing this theme, our goal was to identify potential  tensions between the concepts of Digital Sovereignty and Digital Citizenship in order to highlight the need for a participatory policy involving and engaging with a range of stakeholders. While digital sovereignty is often described in political and economic  terms, reflecting state priorities including competition and self-determination, digital citizenship focuses on communities and individuals, emphasising infrastructure, access, and education for all, particularly those of us who have been historically excluded. How these concepts overlap, oppose, or function together was the focus of two expert panel discussions, which revolved around a set of “provocations”.

Attendees were welcomed to the workshop by Professor Kalpana Shankar, the Co-director of the Centre for Digital Policy, and Ciarán Conlon, the Director of Public Policy for Microsoft Ireland/EGA.  To start proceedings, the Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Artificial Intelligence, Dragoș Tudorache MEP, gave a keynote address followed by a fireside chat with Professor Colin Scott, Principal of the  College of Social Sciences and Law. Mr Tudorache MEP outlined the challenges faced by the European Commission in developing regulation for AI that supports innovation while ensuring high standards of data use and processing. 

Digital Citizenship 

What does it mean to be a ‘digital citizen’ in Europe? Who is included and who is excluded? How do citizens provide input into policies for incentivising new tech/ minimising harms?  These provocations were discussed by the first panel, which was moderated by Barry Andrews MEP. Speakers included Linnet Taylor (Associate Professor at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society), Catherine Garcia-van Hoogstraten (Director Responsible Technology, Microsoft EU), Francesca Sobande (Lecturer at the University of Cardiff) and Elizabeth Farries (Assistant Professor at the School of Information and Communication Studies and Senior Researcher, UCD Centre for Digital Policy). 

Linnet Taylor described her research into the politics of surveillance and the role of participatory data governance to empower citizens. Noting that most current practices around data and digitalisation do not envisage power sharing or the ability to refuse, Dr Taylor highlighted the need to develop more participatory and collaborative approaches. An example of such an approach is the 100 Questions Project which aims to promote data collaboratives. Catherine Garcia-van Hoogstraten discussed the Microsoft Digital Civility Index, which gathers data examining civility and online risk exposure among young people and adults. Francesca Sobande underlined concerns around the policing of self-expression. She highlighted the challenges of approaching the regulation of content with the nuance required to draw what can be very fine lines between allowing people to use platforms as a vehicle for self-expression around controversial topics, the policing of self-expression, and the marginalising impact of the chilling effect of policing. She emphasised the key role of digital access and equity in terms of digital citizenship, particularly in relation to the challenges of online harassment based on race and gender. Elizabeth Farries presented EU working definitions together with educational and infrastructural efforts amongst member states. She emphasised our Centre’s focus on co-created policy and queried potential blindspots at the Brussels level regarding the presence, participation and perspective of marginalised groups, flagging the recent #WhoWritesTheRules campaign.

Digital Sovereignty 

The second panel was asked to engage with the following provocations: Is digital sovereignty at odds with digital citizenship? What are the territories to which digital sovereignty lays claim? What are the new geopolitics of the digital? This panel included Anna Gerbrandy (Professor at the School of Law, Utrecht University, PI for ERC Project Modern Bigness (MOBI)) Anthony Whelan (Digital Adviser to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen), Damini Satija (Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation UK) and Eugenia Siapera (Professor at the School of Information and Communication Studies, and Co-Director of the UCD Centre for Digital Policy) who discussed Digital Sovereignty. The panel was chaired by Eamonn Mac Aodha, Director of the Parliament and Institutions Team at Ireland’s Permanent Representation to the EU.

Anna Gerbrandy outlined her research into the legal concerns around very large platforms and how they can shape state, civic and individual sovereignty. She underlined the problem of approaching the citizen as a consumer, despite producing much of the content on or for platforms. Anthony Whelan discussed the relationships between EU institutions and very large platforms and what values underpin the approach to digital regulation in Europe. Damini Satija explained her independent research into the conceptualisation of digital sovereignty, noting that it can operate at individual, community, platform and state levels and stressed the need for clarity over which vision of sovereignty is being pursued. She highlighted the efforts of states to take on the power of platforms by encouraging more home-grown technologies while questioning whether this would ultimately recreate the same power structures. She argued for the value of taking a participatory approach that is less likely to reproduce the same problems in asymmetrical power dynamics we face now. Eugenia Siapera discussed similar concerns, questioning the boundaries of sovereignty by asking if sovereignty implies dominion over something then what and who does it have dominion over? She stressed the value in citizens reclaiming their data and argued for the insertion of another level, the community level, into the discourse on digital sovereignty, highlighting the Te Mana Raraunga project in New Zealand that works for “the collection, ownership and application of data pertaining to indigenous peoples.”

Wrapping up the event, Colin Scott noted the overlap in concerns and the emergence of clear priority areas for addressing digital technologies impact in Europe. When asked if the panelists thought that digital sovereignty and digital citizenship can be reconciled, all suggested that they were not incompatible and that an approach that focused on the empowerment of users regarding their data would be optimal.