Critical Digital Sovereignties

Data Embassy: The Myth of National Sovereignty in the Cloud

 by Stanislav Budnitsky

Estonia enjoys global reputation as the champion of digital innovation. Heads of states like Barack Obama praise Estonia as a “high-tech leader,” while Western media portray it as the most ambitious project in technological statecraft today,” “the world’s first digital nation,” and “the most advanced digital society in the world. Complimentary narratives about Estonia that pervade Western political and media discourse amplify Estonia’s own grand narrative of “e-Estonia”: the story about overcoming Soviet legacy and turning the country into a modern Western technological state and society through fully embracing digital technologies. The website of e-Estonia thus boasts in a techno-futurist font:we've built a digital society and we can show you how.

Estonia widely promotes itself as the land of digital firsts: the first paperless government, the first national online voting system, and the first “digital nation for global citizens” that extends some citizenship privileges beyond its borders via the “e-residency” program. e-Estonia’s most recent innovation is “the data embassy”: servers located outside of Estonia’s physical territory that store critical governmental records, such as population and land registries, to ensure the digital continuity of Estonia as a state in case of an emergency interruption to the state’s digital systems. In 2017, Estonia signed an agreement with Luxembourg, a favored location for data storage for NATO and the EU, to open the first data embassy. 


Like the project of e-Estonia generally, the data embassy is part global PR, part technical solution. The narrative of the data embassy thus faces the inherent creative tension of e-Estonia between its futuristic post-national framing and national geopolitical imperatives it ultimately serves. Estonia's digital initiatives, on one hand, are meant to brand the country’s image as a prosperous and peaceful Nordic state that escaped the confines of the twentieth-century history, geography, and time and is ready to succeed in the 24/7 global economy. The framing of the data embassy thus partly draws upon the repertoires of the virtual, borderless, global, and post-national state: “an extension in the cloud of the Estonian government.” A the same time, the narrative of e-Estonia is meant to keep Estonia on the figurative and literal radars of the Euro-Atlantic world to protect the sovereign and bordered Estonian nation from its inescapable Russian neighbor in light of their tense relations in the post-Soviet era. Taavi Kotka, at the time Estonia’s Chief Information Officer, wrote in 2015 in reference to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine that the [g]eopolitical turmoil in 2014 brought into stark relief the necessity of” the data embassy solution. 

Data embassy branding, it seems, has been a success. Western media again have readily echoed Estonia's two-pronged message that celebrates the nation's digital ingenuity while highlighting security concerns. When the concept of data embassy first surfaces in 2015, Reuters
reported: “With an eye on Russia, Estonia seeks security in computing cloud.”  


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