BRICS Agenda for Digital Sovereignty

With Russia chairing BRICS this year, there is added urgency to the relevant avenues of international cooperation in ICT security and digital sovereignty within the bloc.

Authors: Alexander Ignatov and Elena Zinovieva*

With Russia chairing BRICS this year, there is added urgency to the relevant avenues of international cooperation in ICT security and digital sovereignty within the bloc. The BRICS nations, being the “hawks of sovereignty”, are shaping digital space governance on the basis of their respect for sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs in the digital space. Above all, this has to do with content regulation on the Internet. BRICS have a significant potential for coordinating the foreign policy of its member states as well as the development of common principles and approaches to the realization of digital sovereignty at the UN level. BRICS also makes it possible to ensure the scaling of the common approach through involving the developing nations in cooperation and extending the rules and standards in the domain of digital sovereignty to countries of the Global Majority.

Priorities for digital cooperation in BRICS

BRICS currently comprises a quartet of its founding members: Brazil, Russia, India and China, with South Africa joining them in 2011. The five new permanent members were now invited to join at the Johannesburg summit in August 2023, namely Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Ethiopia.

Digital cooperation is one of the critical and most sought-after issues within BRICS. The agenda had taken shape as an independent area by 2015 through the efforts of Russia, whose initiatives in the field of international information security were not limited to BRICS but also have been supported at the UN level for many years. In 2015, the first meeting of BRICS communications ministers was held in Moscow, where the priorities of multilateral ICT collaboration were articulated for the first time. The list of priorities included economic issues, diversification of the global software and IT equipment market, as well as political interaction, primarily cooperation in international information security.

Over the past years, the agenda for digital cooperation in BRICS has acquired a pronounced focus on infrastructure and digital security. The former area, prioritizing issues related to the development of digital infrastructure and advanced industries (communications, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, etc.), has largely been consolidated under China’s influence, which has come up with a number of initiatives due to the desire to strengthen its position as a leading center of power in the digital space. In 2022, China set the goal of forming a community of common destiny in cyberspace, which implies respect for digital sovereignty, and ensuring information security as a key to the successful development of digital initiatives.

The issue of international information security has been firmly entrenched on BRICS agenda through Russia’s efforts (Moscow initiates discussions on this topic at the global level, too). A striking example is the Russian presidency in 2020, when the BRICS Anti-Terrorism Strategy was adopted, which directly enshrined “countering the spread of extremist ideas that lead to terrorism, including the use of the Internet and social networks by terrorists for the purposes of recruitment, radicalization and incitement, as well as for providing material and financial support to terrorists” among the priority measures. The Strategy also emphasized “tighter collaboration in combating the use of information and communication technologies for terrorism and other criminal goals.” A year later, under the Indian Chairmanship, these priorities were reinforced by the Counter-Terrorism Action Plan where the five member states agreed to strengthen cooperation in countering the criminal misuse of ICTs and the Internet, and in particular to enhance common capabilities of analyzing information that circulates online, as well as in a number of other areas. Two cooperation priorities stand out in ensuring international information security: coordination of the external policies pursued by the member states to promote this agenda within the UN (this includes digital sovereignty) and institutionalization of the collaboration, which is implemented primarily via BRICS anti-terrorist agenda.

Therefore, ensuring state sovereignty in the ICT environment is part of the broader BRICS digital agenda, with the main focus on international information security.

Digital sovereignty in BRICS discussions

Over the past decade, digital sovereignty has become a central element of political discussions, quite so due to Russia’s proactive foreign policy in the sphere of information security. Various threats to information security have become an important impetus for making national digital sovereignty more robust. In recent years, most countries have been amping up their influence in the information space. There is consensus at the public opinion level in most countries and regions that sovereignty and state power are necessary to protect “vital goods” ranging from security to prosperity, cultural rules and control in the information sphere. As a result, citizens expect their governments to protect their online privacy and fight online-spread misinformation and cybercrime, which requires an enhanced digital sovereignty.

The notion of sovereignty, understood politically as the power held by a governing body rejecting any interference from external sources or bodies, originates from the Latin word superanus, which means “over” or “supreme”. While the traditional theory of sovereignty proposed in the 16th century by the French political philosopher Jean Bodin zeroed in on the power of the ruler to make final decisions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau modified this concept to mean popular sovereignty rather than monarchical sovereignty; over time, though, it has come to be increasingly associated with democracy, rule of law, and territoriality. Sovereignty implies the independence of the state vis-à-vis other states (external sovereignty) as well as its supreme authority over all powers and actors within the country borders (internal sovereignty).

In the broadest sense, digital sovereignty can be defined as an independence of a state in the digital sphere and its ability to implement the information policy of its own choice domestically and internationally. Digital sovereignty currently entails control over the communications and Internet infrastructure within the state borders, independence both in software and platform economics, which implies the presence of national search engines, social network services, postal services, etc. in a given country. Furthermore, the most important element of modern digital sovereignty is data sovereignty, i.e. the ability to store and process data in the country’s territory under national jurisdiction or, if the data are stored outside the country, the extension of national legislation to issues of their processing, storage and transfer to third parties. The successful realization of digital sovereignty requires a strong legislative component, i.e. the existence of a national legal framework to regulate the sphere of social relations arising from the use of digital technologies. In addition, the most important component of digital sovereignty is participation of a country in international cooperation, the development of standards and principles in this area at the level of regional and global structures.

The BRICS nations consistently coordinate their foreign policy positions and vote in a similar manner on international information security and the protection of digital sovereignty as a new principle of international law in the UN. The BRICS member states support the UN Convention on International Information Security and the Future UN Convention on Countering the Use of ICTs for Criminal Purposes, proposed by Russia. Both documents are based on respect for the principle of state sovereignty in the digital environment; in particular, it is noted that “the sovereign right of each state to ensure the security of the national information space, to establish norms and mechanisms for managing its information and cultural space in accordance with national legislation” is a fundamental principle of international cooperation in the field of information security. Thus, a special emphasis in the sphere of digital sovereignty is placed on the issues of non-interference in the internal affairs of nation states or content control in the national segment of the Internet.

Challenges for collaboration inside BRICS to ensure digital sovereignty

Despite the obvious success in shaping a unified approach to the international legal regulation of the digital sovereignty principle, it is hardly possible to speak of any unity of priorities in the field of digital development within BRICS. As a consequence, there are also some differences in approaches to promoting digital sovereignty in the practice of international relations. The latter are due to a significant difference in the level of digital advancement of the BRICS member states. The highest complementarity is observed in the positions of Russia and China, which are actively building up state presence in the digital realm, being guided by security considerations. Close enough to the Russia-China duo is India, which has recently adopted legislative measures designed to limit the circulation of anti-government materials in the digital space, including on Western platforms. These three nations are justifiably claiming the role of leaders, centers of power in the global digital space.

Some members of the Five Founders are objectively lagging behind the world leaders in some areas, such as the number of households connected to the Internet, as well as the total number of users of the Worldwide Web [1]. They have less developed breakthrough digital technologies and inferior digital infrastructure. South Africa and Brazil primarily focus on the applied aspects of bridging the digital divide, on infrastructure development and access to technology. They are willing to support initiatives in the sovereignty of cyberspace governance and information security, but this is not the main focus of their policies in this area, in contrast to capacity buildup.

The difference in approach is evident in the regulation and control of information circulating in the national segment of the Internet. State presence in the regulation of online information in Brazil and South Africa is rather limited. For Brazil, one can also note a more loyal attitude to digital security initiatives proposed by the U.S. and the EU. This is partly due to the historically strong influence of the U.S. in Latin America. Brazil is a party to the Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention, which is seen by Russia, China, and South Africa as contradicting the principle of state sovereignty. Brazil has often taken a hesitant stance, supporting both Russian and Western initiatives. To a large extent, this approach was caused by policy specifics of the Bolsonaro administration, and it is likely that after a change of government the rapprochement between Brazil and Russia in this area will be picking up steam.

Prospects for digital sovereignty cooperation

Assessing the prospects for cooperation among the BRICS member states in the area of digital sovereignty suggests the need to take into account the association’s enlargement. In Johannesburg last year, Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran and Egypt were invited to join BRICS. The composition of the BRICS member states has become a lot more diverse, both in terms of geography and willingness to interact. BRICS have historically clearly adhered to the principle of consensus in multilateral decision-making, the absence of any reservations in the text of the final documents adopted at the summit level being the best evidence. This is something the G20 cannot boast of (for example, in 2019, the U.S. refused to sign up to a common decision on the implementation of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, motivating its move by the fact that it runs contrary to the interests of American businesses and taxpayers). To date, BRICS have never adopted any resolutions that would include reservations by one of its members, which is especially important in the context of the association’s regional security decisions. The latter are often addressed to regions and countries that are geographically distant from the member states.

The new BRICS members carry with them the burden of bilateral and internal contradictions. These include the ongoing conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over the use of the Blue Nile water resources; the armed standoff in Ethiopia’s Tigray region; the new leadership of Argentina’s refusal of the invitation to join BRICS; the long-brewing row between Argentina and Iran over the 1994 terrorist attack on the Argentine Jewish Cultural Center and the economic crisis in Argentina itself, as well as only recently normalized relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. BRICS has a positive experience of overcoming contradictions in pursuit of common benefits, as was the case in the process of establishing the New Development Bank of BRICS. Yet, this decision was taken in a completely different environment and required the harmonization of interests of a much smaller number of parties involved. Against this background, there are negative expectations regarding the viability of the consensus-based decision-making system.

One can assume that after the inevitable stage of integrating the new BRICS members into the established patterns of interaction, cooperation within the bloc will return to its usual course. Especially as regards the multilateral decision-making mechanism, we can expect that the Russian-Chinese approach to digital sovereignty will be further fostered in BRICS, although the main focus is likely to be on infrastructure. On the other hand, given the expected accession of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran, whose stances on online content regulation seem rather rigid at first glance, we can expect more cooperation in this area as well. The assertion that the enlarged BRICS will make progress in deepening the cooperation to counter online terrorism and extremism is also not unfounded – this agenda seems relevant to all member states at first approximation.

It can hardly be denied that the BRICS expansion stands to benefit the bloc’s image. The inclusion of developing nations in the forum’s membership reinforces the image of BRICS as a representative of the Global South on the world stage. By overcoming the inevitable challenge of involving new member states in the joint work, an enlarged BRICS is likely to become more influential in terms of soft power at its disposal, allowing for greater legitimization of multilaterally agreed solutions. This will be achieved by enlisting the support of the developing world, including in sensitive areas of cooperation such as the realization of digital sovereignty.

BRICS has made progress in consolidating positions on combating terrorism and extremism in the digital space, as well as on developing a digital governance regime based on respect for state sovereignty. Cooperation in the development of digital communications infrastructure seems to be a promising area, which is likely to receive additional support from the newly invited members of the forum, as well as from China. In the meantime, deeper collaboration in bridging the digital divide can also boost cooperation at the level of foreign policy coordination, including in the area of digital sovereignty and international information security. In this context, information security is seen as an important condition for successful digital development.

Some concerns are related to the ability of the enlarged BRICS to uphold the consensus-based decision-making mechanism that has been developed over more than a decade of effective interaction as a competitive advantage of the grouping. The BRICS enlargement creates positive expectations in regard to the scaling of digital sovereignty solutions, as well as the latter’s acceptance by countries outside the association, mainly due to the involvement of developing nations.

[1] Russia can be regarded as an exception here. Among the Big Five partners, it demonstrates good performance on all major lines of comparison. Russia’s competitive edge is the relatively low cost of Internet connections, while the problem of digital communications infrastructure development mainly boils down to the plight of remote regions to gain adequate access to digital technologies.

*Elena Zinovieva Ph.D. in Political Science, Professor, Deputy Director of the Centre for International Information Security, Science and Technology Policy at MGIMO University under the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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Alexander Ignatov
Alexander Ignatov
Researcher at the Center for International Institutions Research, Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in Moscow