092 Callum Voge and human rights online

We are joined by Callum Voge, Director of Governmental Affairs and Advocacy at Internet Society. In his role he tracks and analyzes incoming legislation to understand how it may positively or negatively impact the Internet and use this information to advocate for change.

Prior to joining the Internet Society, he worked as a senior policy advisor in the UK Civil Service, where I was team lead on Internet safety negotiations under the UK’s G7 presidency.

As a UK civil servant, he additionally conducted research and produced policy recommendations on digital currencies, mobile payments, and government engagement with international big tech.

He also spent five years working for the nonprofit media organization Project Syndicate, where he negotiated grants and media partnerships with leading publications in 55 countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Transcript of the episode:

Expand the transcript


00:00:02 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

Welcome everybody. It’s the 10th of October 2023 and you’re listening to this episode of Citizen D podcast on the 15th of October 2023. We’re cutting it really close today, with us is Callum Voge, director of government affairs and advocacy at the Internet Society… and obviously, we’re going to talk about the state of the Internet. So first, hello, Callum. 

00:00:26 Callum Voge 

Hello, thanks for having me here, Domen. 

00:00:29 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

Before we dive into the prepared questions, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the intersection between technology and politics. This is sort of a broad umbrella topic we’re going to be addressing today. I know it’s extremely broad, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the issue on what are some of the elements that Internet is turning into a prime political topic worldwide? 

00:01:01 Callum Voge 

Yeah, sure. Thank you. Thanks for the question, Domen. So you know, for us at the Internet Society… just to explain a little bit… we’re a global nonprofit organization that’s focused on building, promoting and defending the Internet, our kind of slogan is that the Internet should be for, for everyone. And I think what makes our organization kind of unique is that we have a really strong global community. So you know, in addition to the headquarters, which is where I work we have over 100 and 10 chapters around the world, as well as over 100,000 individual members that kind of support our cause and believe in our issue and our kind of vision for the Internet, and I think …to answer your question why that’s compelling not just for us, but for our community of supporters is that the Internet and digital topics are just such a fast moving field. You know things are developing very quickly and the reason that they’re intersecting with politics is that we see every issue, case or political issue being amplified or kind of echoed on the Internet. So when we’re deciding about these issues in real life, there’s always a digital element that also needs to be decided. So I think they’re really interlinked when it comes to you know things like illegal content, legal content, hate speech… You know, health rights. These are all actually being amplified on the Internet as well. So I think that’s why we care about it. That’s why our supporters care about it and probably a little bit of what we’re going to talk about today, I guess. 

00:02:30 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

Great, sure. But to sort of further this question or to take a deep dive, so, these issues of hate speech, of privacy, of security of… all these issues have been around, I’m not going to say for centuries but for a while, right, but now it seems that the debate is moving from this fair and coherent battlefield, where you had the good guys on one side and good guys would be, in the past at least, digital intermediaries or big tech companies. And on the bad side, you would have the evil governments. Right now, it seems like the the battlefield is sort of murkier in terms that there’s no good guys here, but at the same time, you know, everybody’s pulling to their side. So, what do you think, how did we come to this situation, where to put it, a bit paranoid, who to trust regarding these issues? 

00:03:45 Callum Voge 

Yeah, definitely. I mean, yeah, if you compare it to the past, I think it is a lot murkier, right, because I think there’s a better understanding about the different actors. You mentioned the big tech providers, the government, good guys and bad guys, it’s all kind of twisted in our minds and I think that kind of lack of trust is what is at the heart of this. 

I think that pandemic accelerated public awareness of this issue, with us moving so many of our activities online and this process was already happening before, but of course just accelerated so quickly during the pandemic. And I think you know that really is kind of what motiva ted, you know, a lot more scrutiny I guess on the actions of different players and the understanding that there are, of course, business interests behind everything.

So it’s not as simple as good guys, bad guys, someone who might be your enemy in one field might be your partner in another field because you have shared values related to something. So, as you said, it’s not black and white anymore. And I think it makes it interesting.  

I really enjoy working in this area, but for sure it makes it very challenging as well. But yeah, I would say the public awareness is a key kind of aspect here, which of course then echoes up to policymakers, you know, who have their own views on big tech and the relationship between them, big tech and the public. So yeah, very, very fast-moving space. 

00:05:09 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

And speaking of privacy and encryption and public awareness, your organization, the Internet Society is participating in the global encryption day that is planned for the 21st of October this year. And it focuses on the importance of privacy and secure data transfer and security in that regard. And again, you know, we are seeing more and more regulation proposals in US, in the European Union, but also more global to sort of address the issue or try to, not to destroy encryption but to weaken it, right, so again to start us off, why did encryption become such a huge topic, and why is it such an uphill battle to just say, OK, you know, we’re going to encrypt everything end to end permanently and that’s not up for a discussion anymore. 

00:06:18 Callum Voge 

Yeah, sure. So, yeah, I’m, I’m glad you gave a shout out to global encryption day. As I said, it’s on October 21st, so its approaching very quickly. You know that’s an initiative that we at the Internet Society, we care a lot about and something we were involved in from the beginning. So, we’re one of the founding organizations of the Global Encryption Coalition, which is a coalition of 350 organizations around the world from 104 countries, which you know at the heart of it, has its mission to protect encryption when it is under threat, but also to support companies that do offer encryption to their users. So we want to see more encryption everywhere, basically, if you put it simply. But you know why this is a tricky topic? Or why it is getting so much attention? 

Now, well, the truth is that this is not a new debate. This is an old debate which has kind of reared its head a few different times. So, in the early days the debate was very focused in the US, especially on terrorist content. Terrorist content, online encryption, could be a tool used to give privacy not only to normal people, but also terrorists… they would say, right? And this is an issue for law enforcement and they need to access data to get and do their prosecutions right. That debate didn’t work. Back in the day, I think one of the main reasons would be that terrorist content actually wants to be public. It wants to be seen by many people to amplify messages. 

And so actually the arguments with the justifications were not very convincing at that time. And so, the debate kind of died, but now we see it reemerging and the focus has shifted more to online safety as far as you know, child sexual abuse and some activities that actually do happen more in kind of private for example encrypted environments. 

This is something that, of course, law enforcement cares a lot about. And so that really has, as you said, kind of pushed for a lot of these new regulations coming in. As you mentioned, they’re kind of around the world. 

I think the interesting thing here is that the leading countries are actually very established democracies, so like two that I would point out would be the UK online safety bill, which was actually passed earlier this month. And now it’s going through the process of royal assent in the UK, where basically the sovereign has to sign it into law. 

And then in the EU, we have the proposal on preventing child sexual abuse, which is still much earlier in the process, you know, the trilogue is beginning in a month or couple months. And so it still needs to be negotiated. But here we see the UK and the EU kind of being first movers in this regulation and you know in both of these cases, the regulations are very well-intentioned, right, they’re trying to make the Internet a safer place for everyone, especially children.  

But unfortunately the approach is not only misguided, but also quite dangerous with a lot of unintended consequences for other users of the Internet and for the Internet itself. So I think with these proposals as kind of three main points that would make, and so the first would be, you know that these proposals, they do threaten encryption, they threaten to undermine it and that does put the security of both EU and UK residents at risk.  

So, you know, the way that these regulations in both cases work is that they’re pressuring providers to either weaken encryption entirely through something called encryption backdoors or undermine it through a process called client-side scanning. Should I explain those concepts really quick?  

00:09:49 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

Sure, sure, sure. I mean, I have a follow-up question, but sure… go ahead with the explanation and then I’ll follow-up.  

00:09:56 Callum Voge 

Sure, sure. So with encryption backdoors, that’s creating a key for government authorities to access and decrypt messages and data sent between individuals. So, a point we would always make is that this creates the systemic weakness that is not only used by governments, but could also be exploited by, you know, by criminals and hostile actors to also gain access to private messages. So, the thing we always try to repeat is that there’s no such thing as a back door that only works for government and not for another actor.  

People, luckily in Europe, I would say that this kind of solution is becoming less mainstream. Instead, we’re seeing a shift to client-side scanning, which is basically… those are systems that are embedded on a user’s phone or another device that scan message contents or, you know, text, images, files for matches or similarities to a database of objectionable content before that message is sent. So you know governments would say, especially in the EU, that client side scanning it’s not violating encryption. 

This is, in my opinion, kind of a disingenuous claim, because really, it’s a technicality because the way client-side scanning works is that the scanning happens before the encryption process starts. So like, yeah, maybe technically the encryption is not being disrupted, but I mean, the whole point is being defeated. If I maybe use a metaphor, if breaking encryption is like ripping open a letter when it’s going through the post sorting office, then client-side scanning is like someone reading your letter as you’re writing it, reading it over your shoulder. 

So actually, the result is the same and your privacy of your communications is dead, so that’s the kind of issue with client-side scanning that it’s still very much to the privacy is lost and yeah, and it’s it is a violation in the end. And you know, when it comes to security, one thing I also want to mention is of course with client-side scanning, it also increases the attack surface, so criminals or hostile state actors could potentially without the right safeguards, manipulate these databases of objectionable content, putting new things there, removing things, and basically filtering and content that could be very legitimate. So yeah, just something to mention. But yeah, please go for your next question. 

0:12:08 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

Following your explanation I find it really, I’m not going to say weird, but it’s so bizarre to hear these political discussions of clients scanning and privacy invasive technologies where it seems that these regulators or people who are proposing these frameworks do not understand the actual fundamentals of privacy, encrypted communication, and I’d like to hear your thoughts.  

Why is this still such a misconstrued debate, why haven’t we, in in all these years that we are talking about privacy and security and issues regarding child pornography or other objectionable content, why are we still arguing about the basics, the basic premises of these proceedings, of these problems. 

00:13:18 Callum Voge 

Well, yeah, I think you know, part of it is definitely, you know, lack of knowledge or lack of understanding from policymakers. I mean, these are very technical issues that if you actually don’t understand the technology well, it’s easy to be, let’s say, influenced by different viewpoints or different information you receive.  

So if you can’t actually challenge what you’re being told as a policymaker, you know you can easily, I hate the term but kind of fall for snake oil or, you know, technology offers that you’re told are very safe and compatible with, you know, human rights, fundamental rights, you know, if you’re not informed, it’s very hard to challenge these claims. Then I would say another aspect of this is that there’s always this drum beat of pressure from law enforcement agencies. So, this will always be there in my opinion, you know, for law enforcement agencies, of course, they want access to… this is what would make their jobs they claim much easier and, you know, let them, you know, be very effective. But you know, there’s something actually, I would, mention to you that you’re probably aware, but maybe not all of your listeners I’ve heard about is there was an article from Balkan Insight recently. I’m not sure if you heard about this one, but through Freedom of Information they got, they were informed that Europol sought unlimited data access for future data collected through this proposal to prevent child sexual abuse materials, you know, not just data related to child sexual abuse, but also data not related to that, you know, including innocent images. And they said that they wanted no boundaries for how this data could be used so you know, with law enforcement, I think there is that pressure. And so, it starts with maybe child sexual abuse, but then it can really, really quickly go with the scope creep to include many things. So, I think that that pressure from law enforcement is, is stronger probably than ever. 

But that will always be there, and it’s the policymakers job to, you know, work with different stakeholders and understand that this is just one pressure and that there are other concerns that need to be weighed up and maybe, you know, talking about these claims from law enforcement. I could maybe push back on some of them even because there’s a lot of evidence that more data and you know scanning, will actually not be very effective.  

And so these law enforcement claims that will help make their job easier, it’s maybe a little bit disingenuous as well when it comes to the client-side scanning technologies because the thing is that these technologies, the scanning, can actually be circumvented pretty easily by criminals. They just would need to add their own encryption themselves to circumvent it. So actually the effectiveness is not clear.  

And this is, you know, kind of echoed by a really key institutions within the European Union so, for example, the European Data Protection Board, European Data Protection Service and their joint opinion, they kind of argue that abuse will continue because circumvention is so easy and you know another thing we could point to is that more data does not always mean more arrests.  

So, I have an example because I’m also very active in the UK policy area, that in the UK, a watchdog shared that it takes the UK police up to 18 months to make an arrest after they become aware that a child is at risk of online sexual abuse. So, you know, 18 months is a huge amount of time where they actually have the evidence, but they’re not able to act on it cause of lack of capacity and resources, right.  

So, this data and more data, the claims from law enforcement, I’m not so convinced, and I think a lot of people are not very convinced by this either. 

00:16:59 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

I find it particularly trouble some, not just what you just mentioned about the whole, aftermath of finding a problematic content and then reacting to it via, you know, arrests and court proceedings. I find it interesting that even the basic premise of this technology and I think I read the same article on the Balkan Insight that says that basically this technology does not exist yet, so we’re talking about legalizing to, to put it more bluntly, we’re talking about legalizing something that isn’t there in the first place, right? Why do you think this is such a passionate topic for law enforcement agencies around the world, where they don’t, again, don’t understand the basic ingredients of those proposals are not there in practice?


00:18:17 Callum Voge 

Yeah. Well, you’re right, Domen. So you know there have been findings from research groups in the UK and other places that these client side sending client side scanning technology, sorry, are just not ready, they’re not accurate enough. You know there’s different types of them, some are, some are scanning for known child sexual abuse, some are scanning for unknown and some are scanning even for grooming messages, right?  

And a lot of this, especially the latter two, would rely a lot on artificial intelligence and the accuracy rates are, you know, not good enough, simply put. And even if you have, you know, let’s make up a number 99% accuracy if you’re talking about a billion messages per day like on some of these platform, sorry, but 99% is just not good enough. 

Because that’s hundreds of thousands per day that then need to be checked against false positive, false negatives. I mean, this is just not a workable solution. The scale of everything, it just doesn’t work. So you’re right, these technologies are not ready.  

But why are we still talking about them? I mean, there’s a lot of discussion about this, there’s been some scandals recently in the EU with some of the companies that are offering this scanning technology and where their funding comes from and kind of, you know, their transparency, I can maybe dig up an article in a little bit to share with you, but yeah, there’s definitely strong interest groups involved here.  

I would say, sorry to name names, but one would be organization called Thorn and Ashton Kutcher, right? Ashton Kutcher would speak at parliaments around Europe, talking about child sexual abuse. And so really that star power, that celebrity, you know, it’s a strong pressure. It’s a strong pressure and you know this again relates to that kind of snake oil, right. So, you know offering technologies that are not good enough. Does that answer your question? 

00:20:14 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

Yeah, I mean, this is this is something that that I’ve been wondering myself  and I love the Ashton Kutcher shout-out because it shows how bizarre this whole field is, right? So, you’re looking at it from the position of a digital rights activist who doesn’t have the star power of “Dude, where’s my car” actor. 

And at the same time, you see politicians that they’re falling over him, basically because he’s an actor, right? So maybe a follow-up to my follow up to my follow-up, I lost count but unless we try to sort of engage Brad Pitt or Sylvester Stallone into this debate, how are we as citizens, as activists, as maybe even journalists… How should we address this issue and how should we point out to the decision makers that the field of the debate is extremely skewed, that they are not even, I’m not going to say they’re not listening to reason, but they’re not listening to all of the arguments and that they’re going with the they’re basically following the biggest, the biggest pressure point. 

00:21:40 Callum Voge 

Yeah, you know, this is something we’ve been asking ourselves, Domen. At the Global Encryption Coalition cause, you know, Ashton Kutcher is one, but in the other case in the US there’s also an anti encryption bill called Cosa Kids Online Safety Act and their spokesperson was the pop star Lizzo. So, another superstar kind of, but I mean, luckily in our case, Ashton Kutcher and Lizzo have been involved in some scandal recently, both of them had bad press. So, the problem has a little bit fixed itself for now. Of course, a new endorsement could come in the future from another star, but you know, we can’t attract these same names as easily, right? We don’t have the resources, we don’t have the money, the connections as civil society actors or as regular citizens. So, our approach has been… we need to work with the more kind of how to say targeted intellectual approach.  

So, for example, we’ve been talking to journalists in exile, for example, journalists from Russia, Belarus and other places that, because of repression from their governments, have to work abroad and you know them, echoing the importance of encryption to their work. So, I think we need to amplify these different use cases whether it’s, you know, journalist use of encryption, LGBTQ use of encryption, other ones which are important stories to tell also.  

So, I think, you know, even if we can’t fight fire with fire, you know, celebrity against celebrity, I think we need to appeal to more of that kind of intellectual base and also those key in the case of the EU, those key EU rights, fundamental rights, but also the values, what does it mean to be European and bring in those voices that really I think define us and define what we care about. 

00:23:34 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

And speaking of things we care about, we’re both fellows for the recharging advocacy in EU type of fellowship, that is run by Hertie school from Berlin. And I’d like to hear your thoughts on the NGO landscape or the activist landscape in the EU regarding digital rights. You’ve been involved with the Internet Society for a while, and do you see a change of narrative, of perception, of importance when it comes to digital rights or is this something that basically picks up whenever there’s a grant available and dies down where there’s no grants available? 

00:24:25 Callum Voge 

Well, yeah, yeah. I’ve been in this landscape for a little bit of time now and as is the nature of civil society, yeah, the grants play a really key role. And yeah, the ability of civil society to take stands on these issues, make their voices heard. I mean, you know, luckily in the EU we’re used to these open consultation periods, right? So civil society actors, individuals, they can make their voices heard, right, but resources are needed to do that in a informed kind of systematic way, right?  

So unfortunately, in the last year or so, we have seen bigger strains on grants on funding for civil society in Europe, including, you know, privacy, activists, privacy advocacy groups. So yeah, to answer your question, unfortunately, I think the strain is there but at the same time I’m really, how to say, really inspired or impassioned by how I have seen this really strong, you know, coming together of European privacy organizations, you know, there’s so many people that care really deeply about these issues who want to make their voice heard. 

I think the challenge is just that they’re, as you said, there’s so many voices in this debate, it’s a very difficult debate whether it’s encryption or other issues and so it is hard to kind of make our voices heard above the noise.  

So yeah, to sum up, I would say, yeah, difficult moment for this society when it comes to funding. But as I said, I’m kind of inspired by how I’ve seen more collaboration while working together and a real effort to stand up against the most harmful parts of these new proposals. 


00:26:06 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

And just one follow up before we move on to the last topic of the conversation. So do you see this, this passion, this energy of, let’s say, digital human rights activists, whatever you may call it… Does it trickle into the political debate, into the mainstream political debate in, let’s say, the areas that you’re watching or is this just something that, OK, we have these crazy activists that are doing their thing, but, you know, the real conversation is happening someplace else, sometimes else and there’s no crossover effect, so to say? 

00:26:52 Callum Voge 

I think I can guess what your opinion is. Uh, I would say, it’s not mainstream enough. I feel when we’re, you know, I’m working a lot at the Brussels EU level. So, there are certain political parties that do work with us a lot and engage with us but unfortunately those parties are kind of sidelined as you know, those are the privacy nuts.  

You know, those are the crazy people and they’re like on the fringe. So, I have seen that kind of narrative repeating itself quite often. And so that’s a big challenge for us, it is that, when we’re working in Parliament, they’re those partners that are very reliable that we do work with, but how do we kind of broaden our support or our contacts with other political parties that are, not as sidelined sometimes as some of these other groups.  

So, it is a challenge for sure, something that is difficult, but you know for me… To be a little bit positive, maybe I would say because I have a global role, I do policy around the world all the way from UK to Singapore. So at least in Europe we have a voice and there is something to work with and you know that’s something that I experienced doing advocacy on.  

You know, we’re talking early about the UK online safety bill versus the EU proposal on preventing child sexual abuse. In the UK, trust in government is super high. You know, it’s one of the most trusting societies in the world. You can see that from the vaccination rate there during the pandemic. You know, people really trust their government. And so, when the government wants to scan, people say, well, the government must have a really good reason to do that, right? Here in Europe, I see that there’s something for us to work with.  

You know, there are lots of countries in Europe that went through recent history with government surveillance, you know, real government abuse of power. And so, I think there is a natural skepticism not in all Member States, but in enough of them that the debate in Europe is much stronger and already more fierce than what I saw in the UK.  

So yeah, giving from my global perspective, I have a little bit more hope here in Europe. I think you know we really can make a difference but as you said it could be better. It could be a lot better. It could be more mainstream. It could be a more valued voice. So yeah, pushing for improvement, but a good base, I would say, for us to work. 

00:29:16 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

I’m not trying to be this gloomy duck, but it’s basically just something that bothers me every time we engage in debates, be it on net neutrality, on encryption, on data transfers, on biometric surveillance… We’re constantly, you know, pushed back to the start line in terms of, OK, here are the basics of privacy. Here is something that while in fact, you know, they’re constantly lobbying, like the opposition is constantly lobbying these proposals that are clearly, just not good, you know? And this is what I find tiresome. Because, you know, if you had to explain… like I often compare digital rights and digital rights activists to eco-activists, and in terms of ecology and in terms of environment, we have that baseline in terms of “OK, you know we have to save the environment.” This isn’t an option. There’s no alternative, we just need to do that, or we need to be mindful as we move forward, right?

Here in the digital rights, it’s all back to the drawing board. It’s all every time we go into these debates not just with people, but also with politicians, with journalists, with decision makers, you’re constantly forced to have this same discussion, and this is maybe something I find tiring, right?  

I just want, you know, a period when you’d come up to a meeting and you would, you know, you’d have a baseline established and you would maybe hash out some of the details, so this is just something that we can continue our discussion some other time.

And now o wrap this up, a more lighthearted topic. The Internet is falling apart. I saved the best for last.  

So, the issue of splinternet, the issue of digital sovereignty, the issues that are that are now cropping up between China, EU and US. Let’s say these are the main actors in this field. So, what’s the… how real is this threat of the Internet falling apart and maybe would it be such a bad thing? 

00:32:05 Callum Voge 

Oh, no, Domen, it would be a very bad thing, but I can tell you more. So in 2022, you know, last year the Internet Society, we did quite a bit of research on digital sovereignty, which is a term that a lot of policymakers around the world have been using. We wanted to do research on this because we were really concerned by this trend. You know, the main reason being that the Internet is supposed to be a global resource. So, when you start talking about sovereignty, that’s like applying geographic borders to a global resource, right? And with a lot of potential unintended consequences, negative consequences for some countries, you know purposeful consequences.  

So, you know, we wanted to dig into this a little bit, you know that kind of high-level finding was that this term digital sovereignty, very trendy and it’s used by different governments to justify so many different policy objectives. When we talk about the EU, there’s not a single definition at all, but we see two main understandings of digital sovereignty.  

So, the first one I would say is diversifying the supply chain, right, so reducing reliance on the import of certain technological components. The classic example here would be semiconductors that we import these from East Asia, Taiwan, China, South Korea, etc. And this could be a vulnerability for us as Europeans in the future, right? That’s a really classic example. But we’re seeing this concept also being applied to the Internet a lot, right. So, as I said, Internet, Internet infrastructure, it’s global by design and it’s decentralized, which means that it does not operate within national boundaries. It’s across the globe, understandably, this maybe gives policymakers anxiety sometimes.  

There’s that feeling that events happening somewhere else in the world could impact Europe. Access to the Internet or the resilience of the Internet in Europe. And I think that these anxieties maybe were always there, but they were really elevated when the war in Ukraine started because if you remember, there were these unsuccessful calls from Ukraine to disconnect Russia from the Internet. So this really kind of brought that moment of tension up that, you know, if a country can be cut off from the Internet, if Russia was cut off, could we be the next country cut off and you know, it really kind of escalated all of these discussions about, you know, reliance on key parts of infrastructure.  

So this would be the first understanding of the EU and then the second one that we see quite often, it’s about competition. So, you know that’s about Europe wanting to support the growth of local service providers, that would be legitimate alternatives to large foreign providers. So usually, you know, policymakers will talk for the surface of the Internet, so you know social media, search engines, e-mail all dominated mostly by, let’s say, American, sometimes Chinese providers you know, so what if I want to use a European one, there’s no good option, right?  

So that’s where the conversation usually goes. But we also see it going towards the Internet infrastructure there as well. And I think the reason for this is that there’s the perception that if Europe wants to be a really strong player in this field, it needs to somehow play a key role in running infrastructure, you know, including Internet infrastructure. And there’s some sort of view from policymaker’s link that they make that you know which is correct, which is like Internet access, is really key to innovation and prosperity.  

But there’s also this kind of unspoken belief from them that if Europe were to control the Internet more and provide it to the world, you know, control the global Internet, that it will somehow generate wealth for Europe. So, there’s this, like, kind of unspoken feeling that, you know, with competition, Europe needs to be more involved in the infrastructure. 

So yeah, those are kind of the two main uses we see in the EU, but then outside of the EU, you know, digital sovereignty is also a very common term, right. And so, the kind of classic OG original use of the term was more from authoritarian regimes, which really was about state sovereignty in the digital realm, so this was, you know, controlling the flow of information on the Internet.  

And so, in countries that were slightly more democratic, they might justify this same, you know, that the state needs to protect against disinformation to protect people. But then in a more authoritarian context, it might be about filtering content. You know, that threatens the legitimacy of the states or that might mean suppressing a genuine new kind of dissident or opposition messages. So, kind of authoritarian stuff, right.  

And just to wrap this up, the fourth kind of and final meaning of digital sovereignty we see is, and unfortunately, it’s quite rare, is a sovereignty of the individuals, so that would be more about empowering Internet users so that they can decide how, when and with who their data is shared and use. So yeah, kind of these four main variations of what the term can mean. And because it’s so flexible, it’s really attractive I think to policymakers to use these terms because it can be used to justify, you know, so many different policy outcomes. 

00:37:04 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

Here’s a rhetorical question. Do you see that as a big problem? So, in terms that the Chinese and the EU decision makers can maybe even agree on the issue of the sovereignty, but because the term means… it’s basically completely opposite. If you look at the Chinese digital rights political spectrum and the European one, this is basically something that needs to be determined before we have an actual discussion about what to do with it and how to tread these waters. 

00:37:46 Callum Voge 

Yeah, it’s totally a risk. You know, when the term is not defined and so vague and so flexible it can mean that two parties are agreeing on something that they mean, you know, something totally different and you mentioned… but I mean Domen, even inside the EU, you know, let’s say if I generalize very widely, let’s say that in France, this kind of competition narrative is the main driving force of digital sovereignty. 

And so, they really care about where the French providers, where are, where are our French companies. But then they’re talking to the Germans and the Germans and understand digital sovereignty more as diversification of the supply chain. So, France and Germany can come together and agree on digital sovereignty actual meaning, you know, kind of different things. 

So yeah, I think there is a big risk and you asked about China. China was the first country to use this term. They’re the ones that came up with this term, right? I think it was around 20 years ago or so and then, you know, a quote from Xi Jinping when he talked about digital sovereignty, he said “This is the right of each nation state to choose its own path of cyber development and own model of regulation and Internet policies without interference from other countries”. So you know, that’s statement alone. It’s really in polar opposite to this global infrastructure that we understand. You know, he really understands it as applying this national boundary to the Internet. 

So it is something, you know, very concerning, something we want to watch for in multilateral forums, you know, where China, the EU, the US other key players will probably be fighting out what they understand this means. And when you have Europe using the same terms as China, it’s the recipe for disaster in my view.  

00:39:28 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

So we’re slowly wrapping up, but do you see the upcoming EU elections, uh, sort of like a tipping point for let’s, let’s call it the umbrella term of human rights online or in the Information Society, do you see a new generation of policymakers coming up and rising to the challenge of everything that we’ve talked about and more obviously? 

00:39:59 Callum Voge 

Yeah, I think the next few elections will be really key because as we just identified you know this all also has kind of multilateral diplomatic policy aspect as well. So, you know the EU historically has or always claimed that they’re for an open unfragmented internet, you know, that’s a statement that the EU has made in the past. So, if we really are going to stick to this and, you know, abide by it, then moving forward, that would really hopefully continue to shape.  

I don’t know the values and the policies that come out of the EU, that’s actually been very helpful for us, for our advocacy. You know when there have been proposals from the EU that use the term digital sovereignty, for example, there was NIST 2, which was the Cyber Security Directive or there was the DNS for EU, which was about DNS resiliency. You know, in those cases we could point to you and say, well, you’re against fragmenting the Internet, that these proposals might have risks for Internet fragmentation, you know, are, are you aware of these risks? And it was a really good kind of opening and talking points. So, I think for the new elections, it really, you know… Will these values kind of remain? Will they change? I think it’s a really important breaking point where we can, as Europeans can either become stronger or we can step back. And I think that’s really important, and we’ll have to see how it goes. 

00:41:25 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

My question regarding the new generation of decision-makers is because that… We’ve seen in in the last year or maybe in the last two years, you know, a flood of regulatory frameworks coming from the EU that are addressing artificial intelligence, digital disinformation… And all of these, at least to me, seem very rushed seem very unproven to work and it also almost feels like they’re just doing this because they feel they need to do something, but they don’t really know even what the actual issue is. 

And this is something that’s very worrying, because as we’ve already mentioned, you know the uneven playing field of discussion, the pressure groups, the lobbying, the interest groups from different from different public and or private sector are gearing up. So, I was trying to sort of get your reaction… do you think the situation will improve? Will it stay the same? 

00:42:47 Callum Voge 

Yeah. No, it’s a great question. Yeah, there’s been a huge rush of so many new proposals, so many new regulations coming in. I have to tell you, these are all actually related to digital sovereignty as well because, you know, there’s this high-level strategy document that the EU has. It’s called Europe fit for the digital age and they use the term digital sovereignty there, and technically, all of these regulations, you know, Digital Markets Act, Digital Services Act, European Chips Act, AI ACT, et cetera, they all fall under that high level strategy, right.  

So, we can say pretty authoritatively that digital sovereignty is driving this, and I think kind of unspoken thing here is that Europe is falling behind. You know, when you look at the providers, you see it domination by the US and like a lesser extent by China. So, whereas the EU and all of this, how can the EU be a leader? Well, at least we can be the leaders in regulation, and we can have the success of GDPR. 

So let’s be first movers in these other areas too and that’s how we can maybe, you know create a… I don’t know, a niche for ourselves, and there’s also kind of that view, right, that if the EU has stronger regulations that that could also create a good environment for alternative providers, right? So maybe providers that are more compliant with EU values and users you’ll want to use those providers as opposed to the US Big tech, right? 

I mean, these are all kind of… It’s all guesswork at this point, but I think that’s at the heart of it, right? It’s like the EU wanting to find leadership in a new area where if we can’t be the providers, at least let us be the regulators. And I think that really pushes this huge influx all at once of so much stuff. 

00:44:36 Domen Savič / Citizen D 

Thank you. Thank you, Callum, for your thoughts… for this, for this wonderful discussions on issues related to the Internet, digital rights and human rights and the digital sphere. This was a Citizen D episode, published on the 15th of October. We publish an episode every month, so we will see you next time. 


Citizen D advice:

  • Demand clear language from decision-makers when it comes to digital regulation
  • Engage in public debate related to human rights online
  • Encrypt everything

More information:

  • Europol Sought Unlimited Data Access in Online Child Sexual Abuse Regulation – article
  • ‘Who Benefits?’ Inside the EU’s Fight over Scanning for Child Sex Content – article
  • Navigating Digital Sovereignty and Its Impact on the Internet – analysis
  • Fact Sheet: Client-Side Scanning – article
  • Internet Impact Brief: European Commission Proposal to Prevent and Combat Child Sexual Abuse – brief

About the podcast:

Podcast Citizen D gives you a reason for being a productive citizen. Citizen D features talks by experts in different fields focusing on the pressing topics in the field of information society and media. We can do it. Full steam ahead!

Join the discussion

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Podcast Državljan D

Naročite se na podcast Državljan D!