Mapping Our Global Digital Future

The use of data presents a wide range of potential, from faster economic development through fostering innovation to better public service delivery. However, it also carries a number of concerns related to data misuse and abuse, including mass spying, algorithmic unfairness, and data privacy violations.

Globally, policymakers are facing formidable challenges in safeguarding data and tackling a wide range of issues brought on by cross-border data flows. The fact that there is ambiguity regarding how states should interact with stakeholders within their borders, as well as with other states and international institutions in order to discuss suitable data policies, standards, and laws to form a framework for data governance, makes addressing these issues at the global level more difficult. However, there is consensus that harmonisation of governance frameworks is necessary due to cross-border data flows and increasingly complicated challenges including taxation, cybersecurity, and privacy and personal data protection.

In addition, while every nation must choose its own digital course, there must be common standards and guidelines for handling digital technologies. They must also establish rigorous standards for the security of the data as well as the people and groups that the data represent. However, many countries in the Global South lack significant representation and a role in establishing standards. These countries are pushed to adopt frameworks inappropriate for their circumstances and implementation capacity. Further, in many global forums related to digital governance, developing countries either do not have the capacity to engage or do not see the content as relevant.

Earlier this month, along with around 40 technologists, policy experts, and academics from around the world, I attended a symposium on examining digital harms and pathways to tech governance that was hosted by New America in partnership with the University of Denver, Princeton University, and the state of Arizona in the US. The initiative aims to drive a paradigm shift away from an era defined by state-driven solutions as demographic, environmental, and technological disruptions reshape global politics in unprecedented ways.

The main objective is to ideate relevant governance policies (for instance on data governance, artificial intelligence – AI) by engaging voices from around the world that have historically been excluded from policymaking discussions. Some of the broad strokes included issues of taming the digital frontier: tech governance in a fractured world. This set the scene by unpacking some of the global digital challenges such as access to the Internet, digital skills, and cybersecurity threats, to mention but a few, that necessitate global coalescing.

The symposium was designed so that participants could engage in working groups that focused on mapping and developing governance solutions to identify harms and mitigate conflicts that stem from lack of consensus on principles for global governance of digital technology. The team was divided into five thematic working groups; AI and Algorithms, Digital Surveillance and Identity, Data Protection and Sovereignty, Transnational Cybercrime, and Digital Access and Divides. 

The insights shared by the working groups will further inform a public-facing report that will be released ahead of the 2023 UN General Assembly due to take place in September. The report will constitute a substantive contribution to UN-centred efforts to strengthen global digital governance, such as those underway at the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism.

I participated in the working group on Data Protection and Sovereignty and some of the issues we discussed included defining a common understanding of data harms, and categorising what we thought these harms were. We further delineated data harms at individual, group, societal and Global South vs Global North levels. Some examples of harms that were cited included; manipulation, exclusion, discrimination, and loss of trust. Another key issue considered was data protection and sovereignty from a Global South perspective.  

There was agreement that data protection and sovereignty approaches taken by Global South countries were much more varied, and not necessarily in harmony. This was exacerbated by the fact that most countries in the Global South do not have the capacity to manufacture their own data governance systems. For instance, a vast majority of Global South countries (e.g. South Africa) rely on a mix of Chinese and US infrastructure/hardware, as well as platforms and apps. Recent instances of spyware being inbuilt in this infrastructure create an environment of distrust, as well as promoting feelings of digital colonialism and loss of sovereignty; thus becoming barriers for many Global South countries to fully engage in international data agreements. 

As such there is a need for harmonisation and cooperation at a continental level to contextually address our data protection and sovereignty challenges. To this end, I highlighted the work that has been done at Research ICT Africa on the African Union Data Policy Framework as integral in moving in this direction.

The feedback sessions from the working groups offered a lot of clarity and rich insights into the various challenges that are being faced in global governance of digital technology across the thematic areas of discussion. We all agreed that jointly mapping our global digital future is a mammoth task; however one of the practical recommendations that was mooted spoke to the need to formulate a global architecture of digital cooperation. An institution in the mold of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) could be established representing voices and interests from around the world to address issues around digital cooperation, multi-stakeholder engagement, and networked governance with a vision of an equitable and just future. 

Such an institution would have to be bottom up in design and have a clear distributive model of sharing power to avoid concerns of having a bipolar tech and digital dominance such as what we are currently facing with China and the United States of America. In sum: to mitigate against being a standard taker, and ensure that all countries are on the same page, Africa would need to harmonise her data governance laws as a prerequisite to being a part of such a governance institution.