The Diverse Meanings of Digital Sovereignty

Published on August 5th, 2020

Written by Stéphane Couture

The notion of sovereignty as it is applied to the digital has been increasingly used in recent years. The notion of “data sovereignty” in particular was almost nonexistent before 2011 while it is now part of academic and public discourse. The dominant discourse about “digital sovereignty” often refers to the capacity of nation-states – especially China, Russia, and France – to assert control on infrastructures residing within their territory and data produced by their citizens. However, many other meanings are emphasized when talking about sovereignty.

Figure 1. Frequency of use of the notion of “sovereignty” as it relates to the digital, using ProQuest Central1

In an article we published last year, Sophie Toupin and I underscored five types of discourses or perspectives around the notion of “sovereignty” as it applies to the digital:2

1) Cyberspace sovereignty is of historical relevance as it refers foremost to the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace by John Perry Barlow in 1996 in which the author asserted that “cyberspace” was then a new territory that should not be regulated by governments.3 In a more contemporary (and academic) way, Milton Mueller offers a perspective that resonates with the same idea in “Popular Sovereignty in Cyberspace.”4 For Mueller, multistakeholder participation, as it is currently practiced in Internet Governance institutions such as the Internet Governance Forums (IGF) or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), should be the basis of sovereignty in cyberspace.

2) State Digital Sovereignty is probably the dominant discourse today and refers to the capacity and efforts of countries and nation-states to control their own data and technological infrastructures. As Francophones (from Québec), we have observed that it is particularly present in France where we see efforts and declarations of politicians to favor local data centers and domestic technologies. In Canada, Obar and Clement have argued for the need to reassert “Canadian Network Sovereignty” by diminishing routing through the United States.5 As Hu has noted, the call for “digital sovereignty” on the part of nation-states is amplified by the increasing significance of “the cloud” which favors the emergence of state sovereignty over data.6 Budnitsky and Jia also have noted that the discourse of digital sovereignty acts as a rhetorical trope (what they call “nation branding”) to promote a distinctive national vision of what the Internet should be.7

3) Indigenous digital sovereignty is similar to the previous perspective, but refers to indigenous nation’s and people’s control over their data, infrastructure, and destiny more broadly. It has notoriously been approached by Kukutai and Taylor in a collected edition proposing an agenda for data sovereignty.8 What is interesting in the indigenous perspective is that sovereignty goes beyond the idea of mere control of data and technologies, but emphasizes the need for indigenous frameworks to collect and/or create this data.9 Duarte has also referred to “network sovereignty” to insist on the importance of technological infrastructures for indigenous resurgence, sovereignty, and self-determination.10 Technology, in this perspective, is a critical tool for advancing indigenous sovereignty.

Figure 2. Cover of Indigenous Data Sovereignty edited by Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor.

4) Social movements digital sovereignty refers to the capacity of social movements and activist collectives to control their own data with the use of free software, servers, and encryption-based technologies and their power to develop and use digital tools which have been designed by them and for them. As noted by Casey Lynch elsewhere in this blog, this perspective is quite distinct from the idea of digital sovereignty as promoted by nation-states, as it often emphasizes alternative and community-based technological making. Related to this perspective is a publication directed by Alex Haché (in two volumes, the second being in English11) theorizing what the different dimensions of “technological sovereignty” for social movements.

Figure 3. Cover of Technological Sovereignty Vol. 2 directed by Alex Haché

5) “Personal” digital sovereignty is the last perspective we have noted. Although far from dominant, this perspective is worth mentioning as it relates to the control of our own technologies. For instance, Gill-Peterson uses the term “technological sovereignty” to refer to (and criticize somewhat) the empowerment of girls in their sexting practices.12 This perspective is also present in the discourse of social movements, previously mentioned, which often emphasizes the need for social activists to ensure their own technological sovereignty, for instance by using free and open source software or encrypted communication tools.

Sovereignty: a political metaphor

One important remark about “sovereignty” is that it places the reflection and the rhetoric about technology within the political realm. The framing is, for instance, distinct from the discourse of “rights” or “ethics,” because “sovereignty” emphasizes issues of relational, and usually, collective power, rather than fundamental principles. In particular, as related to free and open source software, the shift in activist discourse from the ethical insistence on “freedom” and “openness” to the use of “sovereignty” signals this political re-framing, which also allows a widening of focus that encompasses contemporary issues like privacy and rapid obsolescence. Another thing we have noted is that the discourse of sovereignty often seems to be used in an oppositional way, for instance to challenge or counter the hegemony of the United States over the Internet, that of corporations, or that of settlers in settler-colonial societies (in relation to indigenous claims). This echoes other analyses which found that the “sovereignty discourse” appears more prominently in situations where the authority over an entity is weak rather than uncontested.13 

Digital sovereignty in the time of COVID-19

The discourse of sovereignty has been further emphasized in the time of COVID-19, in particular surrounding the use of so-called “contact tracing” apps. One of the issues at stake is the use – or not – of the Apple-Google API to enact contact notifications. While this debate is often framed in terms of privacy and ethics (e.g. whether we should we collect data or not), some politicians – especially in France – have resorted to the idea of technological sovereignty to reject the Apple-Google proposal, even if it means more data collection and centralized hosting.14 Paradoxically, while Apple and Google defend their proposal on the basis of strong privacy and minimum data collection, some analysts argue that these two companies are actually asserting their sovereignty over the Internet: “They are exercising sovereign power. It’s just crazy […]. You have a private government that is making choices over your society instead of democratic governments being able to make those choices.”15 Here we see how sovereignty is distinct from ethical concerns: this discourse doesn’t focus on the choices themselves – whether they are good or bad, or whether one is better than the other; rather, the focus is on who has the agency to make these technological choices.


Stéphane Couture is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the Université de Montréal. His research addresses the politics and cultural dimensions of technologies, and the relationships between social justice and technological making.


  1. Stéphane Couture and Sophie Toupin, “What Does the Notion of ‘Sovereignty’ Mean When Referring to the Digital?,” New Media & Society 21, no. 10 (October 1, 2019): 2305–22,
  2. Ibid.
  3. John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” February 8, 1996,
  4. Milton Mueller, Will the Internet Fragment?: Sovereignty, Globalization and Cyberspace (Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity, 2017).
  5. Jonathan A. Obar and Andrew Clement, “Internet Surveillance and Boomerang Routing: A Call for Canadian Network Sovereignty,” SSRN Scholarly Paper (Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, July 1, 2013),
  6. Tung-Hui Hu, A Prehistory of the Cloud (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2015),
  7. Stanislav Budnitsky and Lianrui Jia, “Branding Internet Sovereignty: Digital Media and the Chinese–Russian Cyberalliance,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 21, no. 5 (October 1, 2018): 594–613,
  8. Stanislav Budnitsky and Lianrui Jia, “Branding Internet Sovereignty: Digital Media and the Chinese–Russian Cyberalliance,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 21, no. 5 (October 1, 2018): 594–613,
  9. Maggie Walter, “Data Politics and Indigenous Representation in Australian Statistics,” in Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward an Agenda, by Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor, vol. 38, CAEPR (Australia: ANU Press, 2016), 79–98,
  10. Marisa Elena Duarte, Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet across Indian Country (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2017).
  11. Alex Haché, Technological Sovereignty Vol.2., (Barcelona, 2017),
  12. Julian Gill-Peterson, “Sexting Girls: Technological Sovereignty and the Digital,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 25 (July 13, 2015): 143–56,
  13. Wouter G. Werner and Jaap H. De Wilde, “The Endurance of Sovereignty,” European Journal of International Relations 7, no. 3 (September 2001): 283–313,
  14. Jean-François Husson and Robin Reda, “Traçage numérique : « Le moment est venu d’établir notre souveraineté numérique »,” Le, April 25, 2020,
  15. Reed Albergotti and Drew Harwell, “Apple and Google Are Building a Virus-Tracking System. Health Officials Say It Will Be Practically Useless.,” Washington Post, May 15, 2020,