Part 2: Most Important Drivers of the Digitally Sovereign Emergence in Germany and Europe
A few weeks ago, our working student Ann-Kathrin dedicated her series on Digital Sovereignty to the what & why. To learn more about the meaning of this now almost overused term and the role of open source in strengthening Digital Sovereignty, take a look at part 1 of the blog series.
Today, I will focus on the actors: Who is involved in strengthening and spreading Digital Sovereignty – the state, its citizens, companies, the open source community or institutions? Who is preventing hard-to-resolve dependencies, which are accompanied by security risks as well as growing economic challenges? And who are the key players that are making the genuine improvements and significantly driving the digital turnaround? I hope to find answers to these questions in the second part of this blog series.
Table of Contents
The State as Key Player in Strengthening Digital Sovereignty
A comprehensive digital emergence that turns the 2020s into a digital decade requires long-term (financial) commitment on the part of the federal government, business and civil society. In its digital strategy published at the end of August, the German government formulates the targeted digital progress: nationwide fiber-optic connections, digital administrative services and innovations from business and research. Recognizing digitalization as an urgent cross-cutting task is important. However, it is equally important for the German government to take action when it comes explicitly to strengthening Digital Sovereignty and implementing concrete measures such as the establishment of the Sovereign Workplace. Finally, it is the states themselves that, as purchasers of open source software (OSS), could demonstrate the high value they place on sustainable digital independence and freedom of design. Does the state support Digital Sovereignty or rather individual committed parliamentarians? Does the state rely on open source or exclusively on proprietary software from abroad? Is it vulnerable to blackmail and endangering digital security, or does it act as an equal partner to allies?
These and other decisions made by the state shape the image of Digital Sovereignty in civil society and the perception of potentially numerous users. Prioritizing open source and giving it visibility through the state is therefore crucial for an overall social classification and evaluation of OSS. This is why it is so important that the state, with its large IT budget, uses this purchasing power and these regulatory opportunities to reliably achieve strategic goals such as the reduction of dependencies, faster digitalization, on-site competence and capacity building.
In Germany, the federal government provides the framework for improving Digital Sovereignty with laws such as the Online Access Act. As the largest customer with enormous purchasing power, it plays a decisive role in sustainably strengthening the open source economy and establishing a sovereign ICT location. This is due not least to the large number of workplaces in the public sector that can be equipped with OSS. With the “sovereign administrative workplace” there is already a project in which Univention, Dataport and other manufacturers from the open source ecosystem are developing the software for the administrative workplace of the future.
Nevertheless, many administrations still rely on Microsoft and are thus bound to regular security updates and the goodwill of the corporation. To prevent the administration from depriving itself of its creative and innovative opportunities in the long term, the German government must take its intentions, which are set out in the digital strategy, more seriously. It must take concrete steps. Otherwise, things do not look very promising for the only slowly progressing digitalization in Germany.
Sovereignty Potential for the Open Source Economy
A study published by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in May 2022 shows how far Germany still has to go on the road to Digital Sovereignty. This study by researchers Maximilian Mayer and Yen-Chi Lu shows that the EU is nowhere as dependent on non-European countries as it is in the digital economy. The Digital Dependence Index (DDI) they developed provides information on the relationship between domestic demand and foreign supply of digital technologies. The U. S., China and South Korea perform best, achieving a DDI below 0.70. Germany and other EU countries, on the other hand, all exceed the threshold of 0.75, which indicates a high vulnerability of the digital economy. The two researchers suggest gradually lowering the high digital vulnerability in order to gain autonomy and take on a more active steering role. But aren’t many companies already doing that?
Both companies from the IT sector that have been offering tried-and-tested products and services for years and “industry newbies” know what is at stake for them. They want to break away from proprietary providers to reduce external dependencies. It doesn’t matter if it is a pharmaceutical company or industrial manufacturing. Digital Sovereignty affects all industries, including automotive. The increasing complexity is already being countered in many companies with open source software. This was the finding of a study by Kugler Maag Cie, in which leading automotive manufacturers and suppliers were asked about the use of OSS in qualitative interviews. Nevertheless, the authors of the study conclude that not every company is yet fully aware of the many advantages of OSS.
In addition to the so-called industry newbies, who have discovered open source for themselves in recent years with the accelerating digitalization, it is the open source companies mentioned above, including many medium-sized companies, which have been (further) developing open, digitally sovereign platforms and solutions for a long time. With UCS and UCS@school, Univention provides products that enable simple and open-source IT operations. On our platform, various technology and software manufacturers can offer their solutions, allowing users to choose for themselves. UCS is made even more flexible through our collaboration with technology and cloud partners, which allow for demand-driven customization.
But it’s not just Univention and other OSS companies that are driving the digital sovereign transformation: the value of the open source community in strengthening OSS is priceless. All over the world, developers are working independently to improve and spread OSS. Together, they form a dense network that sustains change and provides support when other players lack expertise, direction, tenacity, or determination. If it were not for the globally active open source community, OSS would not be anywehere near as developed as it is today.
Why We Need a European Ecosystem
“Regardless of the field, be it cloud, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity or
the so-called Internet of Things, open source software is at the heart of innovation,
and Europe has the opportunity to take the lead here,” writes APELL, the European Association of Open Source Companies in the German daily “FAZ” in December 2021. In doing so, APELL gives priority to the relevance of Europe-wide collaboration for the overall success of Digital Sovereignty. The article goes on to say that OSS at EU level would boost economic growth, facilitate the emergence of a successful European IT industry, and create jobs. The advantages of open source are obvious.
These potentials of OSS for the European economy were confirmed in a study published at the end of 2021 by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research and OpenForum Europe on behalf of the European Commission’s Directorate-General CNECT. It proves a significant impact of open source on the competitiveness of European companies, economic growth, the start-up scene and technological independence.
Key findings of the study according to the OSB Alliance:
- Open source makes a significant contribution to the EU’s GDP
- Increased open source contributions significantly boost the GDP and support start-up creation
- Open source promotes high software development skills and mitigates skills shortages
- The value created by open source exceeds the size of Europe’s institutional capacity
- Open source software lowers total cost of ownership in the public sector as well
Summary and Outlook: Seize the Opportunity Now!
Based on the insights I gained during my research, including reading numerous studies, I know how important a Europe-wide collaboration of actors from business, civil society and politics is for a sovereignly shaped digitalization. For this to succeed, as many German-based actors as possible need to become active and stand up for open source. While some, such as the Brussels-based think tank OpenForum Europe, are setting a good example, others urgently need to catch up. More serious efforts, concrete plans and measures are needed, especially from governments, if we want to stand on our own two resilient and sovereign feet in Germany and Europe.
However, there is not much time left for the actors to do so. Univention CEO Peter Ganten emphasizes the urgency of the issue in a guest commentary in the German daily “Handelsblatt”:
We cannot afford to put this issue, which is equally important as security and the energy transition, on the back burner. If savings are made at this point, an even greater digital dependency will emerge that will be even more dangerous for Germany’s economy and democracy in the medium term than the current dependency on energy supplies.
In the third article in our blog series on digital sovereignty, you will learn why the digital sovereign transformation is particularly important for administration and education and how these sectors can be supported in their use of OSS.