SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

We Need to Talk about Data

Thursday , 08 April 2021

Words matter in policy debates. Even when facing profound digital transformations, reliance on existing concepts to guide policy has a natural pull. Yet, expressions with a strong historic baggage can trigger both enthusiastic support or fierce opposition, irrespective of their actual relevance to the issue at stake. A topical illustration is our collective difficulty to deal with the challenges raised by the massive amounts of data that now underpin almost all human activities across geographies.

On the one hand, “Free Flow of Data” is advocated by many as a critical enabler of digital transformation, innovation, economic growth and social benefits. At the same time, various concerns related to privacy, taxation, competition, security, and even the democratic process, have prompted policy initiatives invoking the notion of “Data Sovereignty”.

“Free flow” and “sovereignty” are terms which strongly resonate with policy-makers, businesses and even citizens. Their coupling with the word data too often generates visceral reactions and intense exchanges devoid of nuance, in a context of heated debates about the impacts of digitalization and growing geopolitical tensions. The diversity of sectoral silos where discussions are conducted worsens the situation and makes solutions even harder to find.

This framing report seeks to unpack these two polarizing expressions to better understand actors’ perspectives, and shift the debate towards reconciling apparently conflicting approaches. The goal is not to provide a comprehensive overview of all the issues and stakeholder views, but to offer a holistic snapshot of the concerns and prominent perspectives to kick-start further debate.

The report is organized in three self-explanatory parts: Data, Free Flows of Data, and Data Sovereignty. It concludes, in Moving Forward, with a call to reframe the discussion, harness emerging innovative approaches, and engage in a much needed global, multistakeholder and cross-sectoral debate.

This report aims to raise the awareness of the general audience and serve as a resource to policy shapers and practitioners in the public and private sectors to help frame the debate around data. The Secretariat of the Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network (I&JPN) made a deliberate effort to capture diverse views and perspectives, and will organize, on the basis of this initial framing, further consultations across sectors and regions to expand the understanding of these evolving concepts and their policy implications.

Building the methodology for addressing the problems of the digital age is as important as addressing the problems themselves. Developing a common framing of issues is a prerequisite. We hope this report will help catalyze a more nuanced and collaborative discussion. How we collectively address the challenges and opportunities pertaining to the governance of the Datasphere will determine the society we will build and live in.

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