First Secretary, Permanent Mission of India to United Nations in Geneva & Deputy Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India
In the modern digital age, “Data” has emerged as an important issue. It includes information about everything and anything stored, recorded and transmitted electronically. It exists in various forms as numbers, characters, bits or bytes. For countries and stakeholders across the globe, data has emerged as a strategic asset, the new gold. There has been a competition among countries for fulfilment of “data interests”. Data has become a tradable commodity, which can be processed and exchanged in the market for a price. An entire data industry has matured with distinctive demand and supply chain. There is little doubt that “Data” currently forms the backbone of emerging Digital economies. It has been conceived by different stakeholders as a “strategic asset”. This has resulted into the issue of “data” being “politicised”. The private sector, state actors and international organisations have developed stakes in the emerging data politics. It has clearly emerged as a resource, which has led to the surrounding competition and politics for access.
“Data interests” have further accentuated due to the emergence of new technologies, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), Quantum Technology and Robotics (QTR). These emerging technologies will require high bandwidth for their operation and optimisation. The path for their roll out has been recently cleared by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). It has finalised the 5G international mobile telecommunication standards, which will help in operationalising these new technologies. It has laid down the foundation for digital transformation by connecting services, devices and applications, globally which will allow one to gather huge quantities of data and process them on real-time basis. It can well be inferred that with this, the national security, sovereignty and development issues are now embedded into network protocols and computer algorithms. Therefore, there is an increased thrust from countries to protect data interests. These resulting discourses are reflected especially within the United Nations.
The discourse on addressing data issues at the United Nations, started with the announcement of the “Roadmap on Digital Cooperation” by Secretary General – Mr. Antonio Guterres in June 2020. The Roadmap recognised the transformative impact of digital technologies, and underlined that the emerging trends in e-commerce, machine learning, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things (IoTs) would require the availability of big and real time data by the Member states. Further, the Roadmap stated that the fulfilment of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires that Member states gather and report data on SDG targets. It tried to address the issues of digital inclusion, protection of human rights, digital trust and security with the availability and accessibility of data. It thus set the context for establishment of “Global Governance Framework” to deal with Data issues.
Since then, the issue has been picked up by the UN and its specialised agencies to discuss and amplify the issues around Data sharing, exchange, monitoring, processing, right to privacy, individual freedom, Data storage, transferability, and privatisation mechanisms. Each one of them trying to gather data under some sort of reporting or indexing mechanism. United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) has established ‘Sendai Framework Monitor’, which is an online tool to gather data on disaster loss and damages on a real-time basis. The data will be fed by the Member State. The discussion has spread across different organisations including World Meteorological Organization (WMO), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Universal Postal Union (UPU), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and World Health Organization (WHO).
The ITU has identified additional spectrum for deployment of 5G/6G and beyond technologies and other services. By allocating different frequency bandwidths to meet huge data requirements, it is catering to the needs of emerging technologies. Its standardisation efforts has made it possible that billions of devices are connected together simultaneously and instantaneously across boundaries. As a specialised agency of UN for information communication technologies (ICTs), ITU is doing landmark work in the field of mobile technology, preparing the ground for new applications such as automated driving, remote medical diagnosis and advanced virtual reality. It is devising standards for Internet of Things (IoTs), and creating global infrastructure for information society. It has launched focus group on “Network 2030” vision for future ICTs. The group is discussing new concepts, architecture, protocols and solutions which support both existing and new applications. It has also initiated Global Cybersecurity Initiative, Focus Group on Digital Currencies and Block Chain Technology.
The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) is trying to build consensus regarding international exchange of data pertaining to earth system observation , monitoring, prediction, environment including weather , climate and water. Its international data exchange practice and policy was adopted a decade ago, which defines free flow of observational data around the world, however, its relevance is now being tested due to the emerging new technologies. The need for observational data and derived products on a real time basis has increased tremendously. Besides, the rapid growth of digital technologies and private sector across multiple supply chain has necessitated the need to share new data such as weather radar data, which have not been exchanged before. In addition, the onset of Private Sector, as a major player in emerging “Data enterprise” has added to the urgency of addressing this issue within the UN System. Data enterprises are actively collecting, modelling, buying and selling customised data products and are also infact leading as aggregators of data which has challenged WMO’s traditional notion of “free and unrestricted” access to data. Therefore, WMO is revising the existing “data policy” to accommodate new interests. It is drafting new “data policy”, to regulate international exchange of data and to reach a common understanding on global rules. The policy will be adopted next year during the World Metrological Congress scheduled to be held in June 2021, at Geneva.
The Universal Postal Union has drafted an ambitious roadmap for 2021-2024 called as “Abidjan Postal strategy” to be adopted during the 27th Congress in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in 2021. The implementation of the roadmap heavily relies upon the availability of data and reporting mechanism by Member States. It notes the ongoing trends towards digitisation and digital transformation of postal services and calls for scaling effort towards the promotion of e-commerce in small parcels. UPU has developed an e-service framework which seeks to link countries national e-services with international digital postal networks. The meeting held in 2019 has already revised the remuneration rates system for bulky letters and small packets (known as e format rates) and approved self-declaration rates, moving towards single postal territory by certain period of time. The rapidly changing communications market, has made postal services increasingly rely on new communication and information technologies. They are developing new products services to meet new expectations. UPU is driven to accommodate the demands made by new and emerging digital technologies. It has therefore launched the Postal Technology Centre to understand the emerging needs and supervise postal strategies.
The World Health Organization manages and maintains a wide range of data related to global health and well-being. The Global Observatory on Health R&D is a global initiative that aims to help identify health R&D priorities based on public health needs. The electronic State Parties Self-Assessment Annual Reporting Tool (e-SPAR), web-based platform proposed to support State Parties of the International Health Regulations (IHR) to fulfil their obligation to report annually to the World Health Assembly (WHA), is a robust mechanism for data collection, processing and use. It is applicable to all Member States of WHO. They report on various parameters pertaining to public health and other requirements. Apart from this, the use of digital tools for contact tracing and ethical considerations has generated new demands. In this light, the recent 72nd World Health Assembly discussed a “Global Strategy on Digital Health” and also created a framework for action to advance digital technologies for health to be led by the newly created Department of Digital Health and Innovation. The Strategy also called for a governance mechanism to be endorsed during the 73rd session of World Health Assembly in 2021.
Consensus is building within the United Nations that there is a need for global “Data Governance Mechanism”. The data traffic volumes are abound and shows no signs of scaling back. The potential of new & emerging technologies cannot be entirely leveraged unless robust data sharing mechanism is put in place. The current data exchange structure is outdated. It was created after the end of 2nd World war and is unable to cater to the current data volumes and requirements. The existing data governance structure needs a complete revamp and invention. Increasingly UN is gearing itself to meet with the current challenges and preparing a context for greater facilitation and exchange of global data.
In the undercurrents of recent developments at the UN, it appears that UN is trying to shape the emerging discourse on data and governance from the view of meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It has reiterated time and again that data availability, processing and sharing, is critically linked with achievement of UN SDGs as data possess unprecedented possibilities for informing and transforming the society along with addressing climate change concerns. Data is considered as a tool for empowerment, some sort of magic wand which will address all needs of our societies. Poverty reduction, food security, health and nutrition will not happen, until data is made available and accessible to each of us. The UN sister agencies, are even offering incentives, funding projects, training and capacity building to encourage data provision by Member States. However, some key questions remain unanswered. Virtually, there has been no discussion on how much Data needs to be shared? What kind of Data? Who will be the Custodian of that Data? And who will be responsible in the scenario of data breach?
Until now, the discourse on Data was primarily dominated by the West. However, the rise of new technologies has led to the diffusion of power across multiple centres. The emerging digital space is witnessng renewed competition for domination. So far, major developed countries exerted influence by regulating internet protocols, and architectures. But as servers started moving towards localisation, it was left open for contest. West’s control over access to data and services weakened significantly. New actors including China, Russia, Korea, Japan and Germany began to emerge. However, the emerging data politics is witnessed by two or three major actors – China, Russia and the US. The politics is evident both within and outside the UN. The west led by US is trying to exert its dominance and maintain the status quo, while countries from the east including China and Russia are trying to challenge them. Both camps are making significant efforts to shape the emerging discourse on data and governance.
Within UN, China partly supported by Russia, called for “New Internet Protocol regime” (New IP). It has highlighted that the existing Internet Protocol architecture is outdated, not able to meet huge data requirements and hence there is a need to adopt new IP structure. Russia, has also called for a new Global framework to regulate emerging technologies including AI. According to them, new and emerging technologies cannot be addressed properly under the existing governance structure. This narrative has been contested by US, EU and other group of countries which maintain that the existing IP structure holds the potential to deal with current changes. Further, the debate accentuate with regards to the adoption of IPv6 standards.
Outside of the UN, these countries have been implementing domestic regulations for data governance.
China has called for a “Global Initiative on Data Security”, as it seeks to support an international rule-making on data governance. According to a Chinese Ministry’s Spokesperson, “China has put forward the initiative with the aim of safeguarding global data and supply chain security, promoting development of the digital economy, and providing a basis for international rules-making in this area.” It has also introduced “Data Security Law” wth the view to seek economic benefits by regulating domestic Data resources. The data initiative is a security-centred approach to data which aims to prevent cyber-attacks, data leaks and have strict technical requirements. It exerts control over the internet content and cyber infrastructure.
USA has initiated “Clean Network Program” (CNP) which seeks to protect citizens privacy and companies sensitive information from aggressive intrusions. It address long term threat to data privacy, security and human rights. The Initiative aims to enhance digital trust standards. The six pillars of CNP calls for clean carriers, apps, store, cloud, cable and path. Trusted IT vendors and telecommunication companies are at the centre of Clean Network Program.
The European countries have already put in place General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) since 2018. It is in the form of an EU law on “Data protection”, which is applicable to the entire EU and European Economic Area. It gives primary control to individuals over their personal data and simplifies the regulatory environment for international businesses. The GDPR allows transfer of personal data outside the EU and EEA. For businesses which handle personal data, it has brought mechanism to prevent misuse personal data.
South Africa has enacted Data Protection legislation this year. It is based on Protection of Personal Information Act, and relies heavily on UN’s Bill of Rights and EU’s GDPR.
Switzerland organised UN World Data Forum, in collaboration with the UN in October 2020. The purpose of the event was to support implementation of SDGs through disaggregated, high quality data. It called that Data must be accessible, reliable and available in a timely manner. It called for data producers, including those outside the traditional statistical systems to share data. This was with the intent to inform the emerging discourse within UN framework.
Outside of these countries, very little has been happening on the data governance front. It is not surprising that most of the developing countries especially from Africa are largely unaware and therefore, have had minimal participation in forming these important global discourses.
While the contours of Global Data Governance Framework is still evolving, it is not difficult to visualise its trajectory.
However, before the Global Data Governance Mechanism is concretised, it is important for the developing countries to understand
Besides, countries need to ensure that the regulatory mechanism, promotes domestic innovation and takes care of our growth aspirations. Any kind of international Data regulatory mechanism must be in consonance with respective national objectives. There is a need to closely monitor these developments.
The world has undergone tremendous changes due to the digital revolution. The demand and volume for Data has exponentially increased, not only for SDGs but across all segments of society. The world was never before faced with so much demand and consumption for Data. It has created unprecedented situation not only for the national governments but also for the international bodies such as the UN. The current transboundary Data sharing arrangements and practices are almost on the verge of getting outdated. The rise of the private sector, and “data enterprises” has added another layer of complexity. It has given rise to issues of human rights, privacy and freedom of expression and so on. There is no doubt that the present international framework needs revamping. The question is how and what would be the modes of revamp? What mechanisms will be out in place to ensure that data shared by Member States shall not be used elsewhere? In this context, the discussion on Global Data Governance Mechanism must address the aforesaid concerns to establish a robust system where data will be employed for building a more equitable and sustainable future.
Mr Bashir Ahmed is the First Secretary, Permanent Mission of India to United Nations in Geneva & Deputy Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India
(Declaration: The views expressed are personal opinion of the author, they do not represent views of the organisation, or place of his work)
First Secretary, Permanent Mission of India to United Nations in Geneva & Deputy Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India
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