Digital sovereignty as the moment for a new type of internet

Instead of catching up with Web 2.0 economy and society, Europe could embrace Web 3.0 to gain geopolitical, economic and social benefits in its ongoing pursuit of digital sovereignty. Here's how this might work out.

The recent wave of discussions about digital sovereignty among policy and industry decision makers accelerated from the second half of 2019 (variations of this took place many times since the 1960s however). It is meant to represent a desire to control data in a self determined way that is driven by political, security and economic reasons.

It is also an equal part a values based pursuit with respect for privacy and openness. “Neue Technologien kommen, aber unsere Werte bleiben” (“new technologies arise but our values remain”) wrote the president of the European Commission on the day of announcing the EU’s first digital strategy.

Since then the EU has committed €160 billion for tech development including chip manufacturing, took multiple steps towards democratic market and technology regulation and put forward a Digital Compass agenda with ambitious tech capabilities to meet within a decade and individual countries extended €190 million in funding for use cases on top of GAIA-X, the European federated cloud infrastructure project.

While this is great, the momentum behind the call for digital sovereignty can be used for something greater and bigger. To better grasp the context for what I mean by this, here's a brief history of the internet.

Internet waves

Internet tools and programs, ways and philosophy of interacting with it and the hardware and devices that power it came (and continues to do so) in waves.

With low bandwidth speeds and limited hardware to access it in the late 1980s-90s, the first generation internet (Web 1.0) was primarily available for commercial and academic purposes. Slowly afterwards, the first generation of communication and payment via email or chat rooms and static websites became accessible to more and more people who joined the network.

The second generation – from early 2000s to late 2010s – normalised money-, communication-, education-, news-, trade-, love- and politics over IP. It also centralised these very functions in the hands of a handful of privately owned public utility companies that are politically powerful. Moore's law in full speed brought the cost of manufacturing advanced devices down and sped up telecommunications – helping billions of people and devices be online and create data.

Web 3.0 – which is happening as we speak – is powered by a number of new technologies and a different philosophy to guide them. Connected devices and data inputs from users and machines run on a decentralised layer and bring new meaning to the massive amounts of data produced as a result. Second and third layers of behavioural and anticipatory data is produced by artificial intelligence systems that run on top of these for its creators' benefit – be that monetisation, cost reduction, manufacturing efficiency...etc.

Whereas Web 2.0 socialised and univeralised the possibilities of the internet but privatised and politicised the rewards, Web 3.0 has the potential and technology to make the individual user – who is the rightful owner – view, control, permission and profit from their data at any moment in time and without intermediaries.

The European way

There are at least “two models” of internet services. The American way that relies on surveillance capitalism and which gave rise to the biggest tech companies today – and the Chinese way which centralises data in the hands of super apps and involves government oversight. Both models ultimately do a lot of harm to individual privacy and the open web.

It is against these models that digital sovereignty was voiced by the German Chancellor and the French President. Where the utterances become vague is in how to operationalise this vision in a lasting way. In other words, the previously mentioned programs and tools set up to address it – do so within the Web 2.0 framework where other countries have first or early mover advantage and economic and network lock in moats.

The redistribution of data ownership and rewards while maintaining its security is the defining characteristic of Web 3.0 and it is here where Europe's digital values and those of this generation of the internet can converge to define digital sovereignty based on decentralised technology.

Data commons as those piloted by DECODE, GAIA-X's cloud interoperability protocol, a wide spread implementation of the Solid protocol and its variants for identity and data management and sharing across public services and the creation of public utility platforms with the user experience and appeal to match their lifetime adoptability and speeding up of research on European digital currency – are just some of the ways in which this scenario can take place.

Building national Web 2.0 champions and unicorns is great. What's even better is to create the circumstances, laws and system readiness to build national and global Web 3.0 technology champions that redefine the rules of the internet all together and chart Europe's way there.