Digital Sovereignty: Blog Series

Part 1: How to secure the ability to create and control for Germany and Europe with Open Source Software

What is Digital Sovereignty? Why is it so important? Where does OSS come into play for the development of an intra-European solution and what contribution does Univention make? These are the very questions our working student Ann-Kathrin addresses in part one of this blog series on Digital Sovereignty.

Digital Sovereignty in our Everyday Life

Digital Sovereignty. Two words that are hardly to non-existent in the cosmos of higher education. A discussion about the possibilities for the self-determined use and design of IT at university? No chance. Course-relevant information is shared on WhatsApp, presentations are created with PowerPoint, academic assignments are written with Microsoft Word and Citavi, and in times of online teaching due to the pandemic, students rely on Zoom. Anyone who tries to convince his*her study group to use Open Source Presentation Software, anyone who wants to convince a professor of the advantages of LaTex, or suggests using Rocket.Chat instead of WhatsApp needs good arguments, strong nerves and a lot of time. After all, students’ familiarity with proprietary software and the early occuring lock-in effects result in a low number of students being willing to seriously consider Open Source Alternatives.

This is hardly surprising, but nevertheless alarming. Since the relevance of Digital Sovereignty and the opportunities of OSS for universities, schools, administration, companies and other stakeholders throughout Germany and Europe are still niche topics that rarely reach citizens beyond already interested IT professionals. For me, this blog series is an opportunity to change the status quo, at least in my personal environment. I want to deepen my knowledge of Digital Souvereignty and delve into the depths of the subject. However, the first step is always the hardest. That is why, before I examine the potential of OSS, I want to take a step back and find answers to the following questions: What exactly does Digital Sovereignty mean? And why is the term so ubiquitous in digitalisation today?

The Meaning of Digital Sovereignty

Digital Sovereignty does not only mean data sovereignty but an abundance of dimensions that are supposed to establish and ensure IT‘s strategic autonomy. These dimensions include knowledge, research, development and production sovereignty as well as operational, usage and transparency sovereignty. This results in high “(…) demand on the strategic autonomy‘s freedom of decision and action in the digital space” (Kar & Thapa 2020: 14).

For Prof. Dr.-Eng. Boris Otto, Digital Sovereignty is a key ability “of a natural or legal person to exercise exclusive self-determination concerning the economic asset of data” (Otto 2016: 5). He thus refers to data sovereignty, which is a part of Digital Sovereignty. Kar and Thapa (2020) refer to Digital Strategic Autonomy in their publication, which, beyond data sovereignty, “encompasses the state’s abilities to implement its own political, social and economic priorities without being constrained to an undesirable degree by dependencies in digitization.” (2020: 10). Goldacker (2017: 7) distinguishes between Digital Sovereignty for individual and institutional IT users, IT producers and service providers, and society as a whole. For them, there are different focal points, which make it difficult to agree on a universally valid definition.

Looking for similarities in the definitions, it is obvious that the focus is on political, economic and individual dependencies that need to be dissolved and replaced by control capability, design flexibility and adaptability. If we do not break away from the dominance of a few large IT companies and insist on the three mentioned capabilities, we will move further away from the democratisation of IT infrastructures with actual control capability and design flexibility.

Digitale Souveränität für individuelle und institutionelle Nutzer*innen

Open Source – the Key to Digital Sovereignty

Open Source solutions play a crucial role in reducing dependencies on so-called Hyperscalers. How crucial, shows a PwC market analysis from 2019. Providers such as Microsoft “[…] appear to be using their supply power to their advantage and not, or only insufficiently, to address their customers’ demands, e. g. the increased need for information security in the public sector”. This makes it all the more important to replace proprietary software with Open Source alternatives. After all, Open Source software is not only comparable to proprietary software in terms of performance, but also offers further advantages such as different service providers for cloud services, the possibility of moving one’s data from one service provider to another, and the availability of cloud services as software that can also be run in your own data centre.

Open Source code keeps backdoors closed or at least provides the opportunity for their detection and thus offers the necessary transparency for trustworthy cloud services. Rafael Laguna de la Vera, Director of the Federal Agency for Leap Innovations is certain: OSS represents the ultimate growth opportunity for Germany as an ICT location (Laguna de la Vera 2020). At Univention, we are therefore committed to a world in which people and organisations can use and shape IT in a self-determined way by using Open Source Solutions. With our products UCS and UCS@school, we actively contribute to creating alternatives to Hyperscalers’ offers. If you want to get an idea of our product, you can download the UCS Core Edition free of charge, and of course, also take a look at its source code.

Digital Sovereignty

Open Source software such as UCS and UCS@school can make a digitally sovereign digitalisation a success. There are huge economic benefits to using Open Source Software. However, given Hyperscalers’ market power, breaking away from old dependencies is not an easy task. Yet if we want to be in control of our data usage, view how it is used transparently and retain full flexibility in designing our IT environment, there is no way around Digital Sovereignty and Open Source. “We can no longer allow ourselves to be unilaterally dependent, just as we can no longer allow ourselves to be dependent on natural gas or oil,” thinks Univention CEO Peter Ganten and concludes: “That is why we need a digital turning point” (Tagesspiegel Background | Keynote Univention Summit 2022).

Towards a (More) Democratic IT

To dissolve these dependencies and create a sustainable digital policy, we need to adjust various screws at the same time. The Manifesto for Digital Sovereignty shows what these could be. This manifesto originated at the German government’s Digital Summit from the Digital Sovereignty Focus Group in the Think Tank, an independent body under the umbrella of the OSB Alliance.

The list contained therein with three very important screws for strengthening Digital Sovereignty lingered in my mind. That is because it illustrates the complexity of the issue in a welcoming simplicity, without leaving out relevant options for action. It states concisely what is needed to form a future-oriented and sustainable digital policy and to strengthen Germany’s and Europe’s digital position in the world.

Options for action according to the think tank of the OSB Alliance:

  1. Better educational conditions are needed to increase digital literacy.
    Opportunities must be created and expanded to acquire and further develop digital competencies throughout life. These are necessary for informed usage and design of digital technologies and thereby for participating in the whole of social life.
  2. Innovation and competition must be promoted in favour of greater dynamism.
    The innovative capacity of our country can be sustainably strengthened if software and data can be equally used by researchers and companies as well as the state.
  3. A digitally sovereign state as a framework for vital digital ecosystems.
    What we need is a vital marketplace in Europe that uses its global strength to enforce technological world standards and principles such as openness, federation and the possibility of permission-free participation, thereby anchoring our liberal value system.

After extensively exploring the topic for this blog article and the other articles in the series, I can draw up this personal summary: There is no way without Digital Sovereignty. While I was only superficially familiar with the matter a few months ago, I can now say that I have learned the fundamental advantages of OSS for the digitally sovereign transformation. I have become aware of how important it is for a democratic IT to make digital policy decisions in line with Digital Sovereignty. For this, Open Source is particularly suitable.

I want to continue to get to the bottom of Digital Sovereignty and focus on important actors such as politics, industry, civil society and the Open Source community in the second article of the blog series. After all, these actors are in high demand when it comes to Germany’s and Europe’s future digital policy.

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