Research Priorities

The expansion of digital technologies raises major political, economic, societal and ethical issues. Everyday lifestyles and public policies (education, health, employment, security, etc.) are being profoundly transformed at the European and national levels, as well as outside its territories.

Three main phenomena illustrate the transformation underway: the weak capacity of governments to apply national regulation to a digital sector that is essentially transnational and not designed to be state-centric; the deployment of transnational platforms with unprecedented power; and the acceleration of technological innovation (artificial intelligence, blockchain), which is leading to the emergence of an environment in which algorithms are omnipresent and data is the new black gold.

Poweful transnational platforms now seem to be competing with the states, or even resisting them. They are in a position to impose their conditions on professionals and consumers who use them. As holders of gigantic amounts of data, their power is all the more worrying as their headquarters are usually located in the United States. The power acquired by those known in Europe as the “GAFAMs” has become such that there is regular talk of their possible dismantling.

At the same time, the meteoric progress of technology has allowed both government agencies and private actors to seize new opportunities: the French administration now has the right to adopt fully automated decisions and uses Big Data tools to detect fraud. Technology is also enabling the emergence of novel organisations, such as decentralised autonomous organisations developed on the blockchain, or artificial intelligence programmes capable of acting autonomously.

The digital universe is now shaping our reality and our apprehension of it (new forms of sociability, new modalities of information or political action, etc.). In this context, the Digital, Governance and Sovereignty Chair‘s purpose is to contribute to the research on the following issues.

Sovereignty issues

The absence of borders on networks leads to the formulation of a new territoriality specific to the digital world and to the consideration of new modes of governance and state intervention, when faced with actors whose geographical location may be distant. In particular, we may wonder about the emergence of a new “digital sovereignty” as a result of technological evolution and the deployment of networks. 

It is perhaps surprising that the traditional notion of “sovereignty”, which appeared in the 16th century with Bodin, and which is of a philosophical and political nature, is now linked to the digital world. But we can formulate the hypothesis that the “absolute and perpetual power” evoked by Bodin is changing its face today to correspond, in the contemporary era, to a form of power exercised in a dematerialised manner, by means of computerised processing, in a network, by actors who are not necessarily states.  The hyperconnected reality in which we evolve[1] would thus be the place of a new form of power exercised independently of any territorial anchoring, by new actors. It is therefore essential to question this new notion of “digital sovereignty” and the relationship it has with traditional state and national sovereignties. How can we combine geographical limits and the absence of borders on digital networks? Is territoriality obsolete in the digital age or does it extend according to the uses of data? Can we talk about a new territoriality at a time when borders can also be technological, economic, legal…

In particular, faced with the emergence of immense platforms with unparalleled power, can States (re)assert their sovereignty over the digital space, whose borders are just as much legal, technical, economic, geographic as they are political? What actions should they take? Should they regulate, constrain or even sanction? Should they favour a national framework and national actors? Does sovereignty extend beyond a geographical framework to apply to a technology? Do new forms of conflict require specific responses? These are all questions that, without claiming to be exhaustive, raise new questions about the scope of the state’s action. Consequently, it is appropriate to reflect on the criteria that relativise or could strengthen the capacity for state action.

A first aspect is the capacity of states to claim a new form of sovereignty over the digital space: data localisation, taxation, international cyber law, regulation, technological solutions, purchasing preferences, how to claim digital sovereignty; is this possible? The relevance of existing tools, the need for modernisation and innovation are the framework for reflection on this profound transformation of a concept that has not seen such a major change since its creation.

A second aspect of the question concerns the circulation of digital data, as illustrated by the difficulties caused in Europe by the adoption of the American CLOUD Act in 2018. The absence of borders in the digital world has indeed become a new tool for the extra-territorial application of American law in particular. The nature of the most appropriate response remains an open question. One possible response could be of a legal nature, and amounts to adopting new texts, reforming existing texts, such as the 1968 law (misnamed “blocking law”), or even rethinking the scope and modes of action of the law. Another type of response could be of an industrial nature and consist, for example, in organising the storage of data outside the United States by actors with no link to the United States.

A final aspect is the emergence of transnational or “a-territorial” platforms with the open ambition of placing themselves outside of state regulations or exercising a regalian role traditionally belonging to a sovereign state. The Libra project is currently denounced as aiming to set up what would be the equivalent of a sovereign currency. What should be the most appropriate response to the deployment of such platforms, against which states are sometimes powerless to fight? Should we negotiate, regulate or abdicate?

Regulatory issues

The emergence of large transnational platforms, combined with technological developments (artificial intelligence, blockchain), is leading to new situations that raise questions about new modes of regulation. In the digital age, the question arises of the regulation of technologies but also of actors, in accordance with objectives that the States themselves define. These objectives may include the protection of citizens, the proper functioning of public authorities, the proper functioning of markets, the participation of everyone in the national effort (taxation), but also an industrial dynamic with, for example, the emergence of major digital players capable of competing with American platforms in order to ensure true technological sovereignty.

In fact, the question arises of adapting several branches of traditional legislation, or even creating new legislation to respond to a new reality in order to meet several objectives Need to protect users’ personal data (GDPR), fairness of the information disseminated, the need to organise both the circulation and possible protection of non-personal data, the special status of workers on intermediation platforms, protection of the value of content with, in particular, the question of “neighbouring rights” insofar as the explosion of digital content has called into question the model for valuing content (press, media, creation…) without finding an alternative economic balance.

A particular case can be distinguished in the field of competition policy. At present, the question arises as to whether traditional antitrust law is adapted to the new issues raised by the emergence of large platforms.

Similarly, beyond legislative issues, how can governments regulate in a way that ensures their technological sovereignty? There are several ways to do this, such as financing innovation and disruptive technologies so as not only to encourage new players to emerge but also to maintain and develop them in France or in Europe, preferential purchasing policies, national or regional industrial strategies, and also the protection of innovative technologies, for example by controlling foreign investment in France so as to avoid the takeover of French companies with advanced technologies, particularly in strategic sectors (cybersecurity, space, AI).

More fundamentally, does the digital age correspond to new ways of regulating? What is the relationship between the different modes of regulation (legal, judicial or technical)? Between the different objectives pursued? Between the different actors involved in this regulation? How can we deal with new technologies, such as blockchain, which are designed from the outset to escape any form of regulation? What is the role of regulators in the face of the deployment of algorithms in administrations and companies? What strategy should be adopted in the face of the emergence of a new data economy?

Democratic issues

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown that the possession of huge volumes of data could allow, thanks to social networks, to use profiling techniques to try to disrupt the course of a democratic election. In this respect, the large platforms, which not only collect data but also disseminate information and targeted advertisements, can serve, more or less consciously, as an instrument for foreign powers to undermine the sovereignty of a country. On the other hand, they also allow the creation of new social links, or even the strengthening of the democratic link between citizens and government through direct democracy experiments, as illustrated by the example of Civic Tech.

From this point on, several questions emerge with particular acuity. For example, the control of content on social networks (hate speech, fake news, deep fakes) is today a major issue on which several strategies are clashing. For example, should we encourage the deletion of content? Or should we adapt the legal arsenal to these new vectors? Or should we establish a dynamic partnership with the actors concerned?

Moreover, citizen participation is now taking place in a new form thanks to civic tech, which is becoming a natural adjunct to democracy, the scope, use and future of which must be questioned. Moreover, digital technology allows us to envisage a new territorial planning that takes less account of geographical or topographical criteria. Enclosure or disenclosure can also be digital. Finally, a digital democracy is being set up at the national level and in the territories, to such an extent that we could speak of the appearance of a new “digital citizenship”.

[1] see Luciano Floridi et alii The Onlife Initiative: concept reengineering for rethinking societal concerns in the digital transition

Find out more

Throughout the year, the Chair organises various events (annual conference, webinars, round tables, interviews).The Chair publishes scientific articles in the form of policy briefs, research papers and blog posts.