Our new episode of Humanizing Technology dives into European politics around data ethics: the policies and laws currently in place and the ones to come to better regulate and protect human rights in the digital world.

Nina Müller, Ethical Commerce Alliance Lead, chats with Pernille Tranberg, co-founder of DataEthics.eu. They discuss digital sovereignty and the Digital Services Act, exploring this new law’s benefits and risks plus ideas around enforcing it and who is responsible for this.

The conversation kicks off with a basic definition of what digital sovereignty means and why this idea of becoming a more independent actor in the online world is important. For this, we take a look at the rapid evolution the past 20 years has brought: from big tech’s humble beginnings to an analysis of where we are now.

Need for sovereignty vs limitations to ‘free and open’

Part of embracing digital sovereignty is claiming more independence for Europe through drawing invisible boundaries online around these countries. This brings up two key questions: 

  • In creating this boundary, what happens to the global connectivity of the free, online world?
  • Will the idea of being a more independent player backfire and set limitations to how we know and use the internet today? 

On the contrary, stresses Pernille, the idea is not to set limitations but to become an equal player in Europe. She explores how this may be reached, strengthening European values and autonomy. There are a number of measures to set up to become an equal player in the global online community with European standards for data management.

‘Go local’ online

Part of gaining more independence means supporting your local provider for your online needs. Instead of turning to big tech, you can choose European alternatives for video conferencing, email services, cloud hosting, project management tools, etc. Pernille explains that even if you are using them for free, you are still supporting them with your time. The more people use these products, the more they can evolve. Giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon and others, have been collecting tons of data over many years and were able to develop their products to dominate the market. Tapping into European alternatives will support those software solutions and give them the opportunity to grow.

Digital Service Act in a nutshell

From here, we move on to the Digital Service Act and Pernille explains its goals briefly as another means to gain more digital sovereignty. The Digital Service Act aims to enforce laws protecting the rights and safety of the individual online. It will regulate:

  • Content moderation on social media
  • A better protection of children
  • Behaviour manipulation to control and limit the use of specific design patterns to nudge users into a certain behaviour (like consenting to the use of trackers)
  • And introduce more measures to protect citizens

Responsible stakeholders

In a digital sovereign Europe with a data democracy where the individual can have control over their the data, we have various different stakeholders to ensure and enforce it: 

  1. Government: The governing bodies making and executing laws, as well as using digital services which are compliant with the law and ethical in its handling of data.
  2. Industry: Companies who use Privacy by Design and give individuals control over their own data.
  3. Individual: Each person merits ethical products and services that safeguard their privacy. 

Pernille explains these stakeholders in a comparison to climate change: 

‘It’s like the climate. It’s not the sole responsibility of the government; it is a joint effort of individuals, regulations and industry to change the way we use personal data.’

Protecting PII in a data-sharing economy in Europe

There are a multitude of examples where anonymised data sets are mixed with other data sets to re-identify the person behind the information. This is an issue that needs to be addressed within the wider package of new laws and policies being created in Europe right now. Controlling how companies and governments anonymise data needs to be improved. Pernille entertains the idea of a certification scheme on anonymisation that needs to be audited and supervised.

The EU is also tapping into a trend which we have seen in the USA, Japan and Canada for quite a while now: the personal data store movement. A lot of new startups help individuals take back control of their data by putting that data in a pod and sharing it with whomever you choose. And that is true privacy, as Pernille points out.