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EU: Digital sovereignty & Interoperability. What about the role of Free Software?

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Speaking about Digital Public Infrastructures last week, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pointed out that "the trick is to build public digital infrastructure that is interoperable, open to all and trusted". What exactly does this mean? What is required to achieve such an accessible digital infrastructure that can help foster innovation and allow cooperation on a global scale? What role does Free Software play in such ambition?

Map of the world interconnected

At the G20 summit 2023 in New Delhi, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has called the attention of the world to recognise the importance of building a digital public infrastructure that is open to everybody, that is interoperable and that connects us with one another. However, in order to understand what is behind this statement, it is important to take a look at how the values of openness, digital sovereignty and interoperability have guided the latest EU digital policies.

Over the last years, the EU has witnessed the emergence of an EU discourse that highlights the need to strengthen the EU digital sovereignty. Since the beginning of her candidature, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has pledged “technological sovereignty” as one of her key priorities in the ongoing digital strategy of Europe(pdf). This has guided the EU in its ambition to reduce dependencies on technology and to assure that such technology empowers people (pdf).

With a common vision of the EU in 2030 – the 2030 Digital compass has started to move Europe forward towards more digital sovereignty “in an interconnected world by building and deploying technological capabilities in a way that empowers people and businesses to seize the potential of the digital transformation, and helps build a healthier and greener society".

Digital sovereignty and Free Software

In an era of increasing digitalisation, the core values of openness, accessibility, and trustworthiness must lead the way. A crucial aspect of the modernisation of our digital infrastructure is to ensure digital sovereignty.

As stated by the European Commission in its Communication “Shaping Europe Digital Future”(pdf): “European technological Sovereignty starts from ensuring the integrity and resilience of our data infrastructure, networks and communications. It requires creating the right conditions for Europe to develop and deploy its own key capacities, thereby reducing our dependency on other parts of the globe for the most crucial technologies. Europe's ability to define its own rules and values in the digital age will be reinforced by such capacities.”

In this regard, Free Software serves as an enhancer for governments and public institutions to build and maintain their digital systems without vendor lock-in, ensuring long-term control, cost-efficiency, and digital sovereignty. Moreover, it fosters innovation by allowing collaborative contributions resulting in robust and secure software that can be customized to meet specific public needs. By embracing Free Software, potential vulnerabilities in such digital public infrastructure can be easier identified and fixed while it promotes equitable access to technology, and reinforces the fundamental democratic principles of accountability and citizen engagement.

This promotes a self-reliant approach to technology, empowering the EU to shape its digital future in alignment with its values, regulations, and strategic interests, while fostering a more competitive and technologically independent European digital landscape.

As EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn has clearly stated “digitalisation cannot be seen in isolation” and “the force of good” - Free Software - has also the potential to ensure the proper use of public money, promote freedom of choice while guiding the EU and the world in the efforts of achieving a sovereign digital infrastructure.

Interoperability and Free Software

Interoperability has also played an important role in the digital efforts of an EU more interconnected, open and sovereign. In order to be able to have information systems and devices that work seamlessly together, a critical infrastructure is needed, and Free Software together with Open Standards play a fundamental role in these efforts.

With projects such as “FOSSA” and “FOSSA2” with the goal to increase the security and integrity of the Free Software used by European Institutions, “ISA”and “ISA2” aiming to strengthening interoperability across borders and sectors, as well as the latest EU Open Source Strategy and the further “Commission decision on the Open Source licensing and reuse of Commission software”, Europe has slowly and ambitiously laying the foundation for a digitalisation that realises the role of Free Software. However, ahead, there is still a long way to effectively bring such efforts into practice, so that this can be translated into solutions to real-life problems.

As EU Commission President von der Leyen has highlighted during her statement at the G20 summit, the success of the COVID19 digital certificate in the EU is a clear and practical example of what it is needed to tackle a global crisis in the most efficient way: Free Software. Free Software allowed a secure and transparent solution and also laid the groundwork for the interoperability that was needed in such global crisis by showing how collaboration can thrive a global solution.

EU about to take a landmark decision

With the current Interoperable Europe Act, the EU has already noted upon the need to create a dedicated legal framework that can pave the way of an interoperable digital landscape and is about to take a step ahead towards a more sovereign and interoperable Europe. Once finalised, the proper implementation of this Act within member states is of paramount importance to attain its full potential in fostering a unified and harmonised digital environment across the European Union as well as to amend the shortcomings that the final text might have when it comes to realising the potential that Free Software has to offer for a more interoperable Europe.

Ahead, there is the opportunity to assure a proper implementation of this and other digital policies which will help to more clearly define what Europe means with digital sovereignty and interoperability. It is time to underlying the fundamental role that Free Software and its community can play in the digitalisation of Europe.

Summary

The EU has started to recognise the important role that Free Software can play in the ambitious efforts of a more sovereign and interoperable digital infrastructure in Europe. It has started to come clear that Free Software can be a cornerstone of the EU's digital policies aimed at enhancing digital sovereignty and interoperability. By embracing Free Software, the EU can assert greater control over its digital infrastructure, promote interoperability, spend taxpayers money efficiently, improve security and privacy, foster innovation, and collaborate with partners globally, ultimately leading to a more self-reliant and digitally resilient European Union.

Yet a decisive period ahead is the implementation in Member States of the some of these digital policies that have come as a result of the ongoing digital agenda and which will be decisive to ensure that Europe achieves a sovereign and interoperable digital landscape.