• Data has assumed a fundamental and growing importance in all spheres of human activity.
  • Data is now globalized and mobile, which means we need a globally agreed set of principles and standards for dealing with it.
  • Failure to establish a Global Data Convention could risk our economic and social stability.

Data: a word that defines our age. Today, data has assumed a new importance for economies and societies. It is at the heart of almost everything we do, a ubiquitous globalized commodity, easily shared, duplicated and traded. Data is the glue that binds and drives the digital economy, communications, government, social media, the cloud, blockchain, the internet of things, crypto-currencies and even politics. Data offers promise but also peril – it is a tool for liberation, but also potentially a weapon for exploitation. Yet data flows remain largely unregulated and issues around access and ownership are increasingly contested.

For so long, we have thought of data as an input – a byte we feed into a computer, a tool to inform decision-making. But data is now a policy issue in and of itself. Given the importance of data to the globalized digital economy, surveillance, politics and AI, there will be few more important geopolitical issues in the coming years. Some even argue that data is a new form of capital. It is already one of the most critical pieces of infrastructure in modern economies and societies. Data requires production, transportation, security, storage, refinement and dissemination. The architectural design of such an important piece of infrastructure should not be left to chance but should be carefully constructed in a way that addresses some important questions and tensions:

  • How do we balance the wellbeing of people and communities, ensuring they can gain insight from data to improve their lives, with the need to protect their privacy and shield them from misuse and abuse of data?
  • What is the appropriate equilibrium between proprietary and public good data? What data should be protected as a public good, not just in the economic sense, but in the broader social sense? What data should be treated as a commercial asset?
  • How can data best support a competitive, thriving and diverse market for innovations that improve and enrich human lives?

To strike the right balance between these tensions we need a Global Data Convention, not a patchwork of regional or national solutions. Data is globalized and mobile, easily transcending borders. So, while some countries and regions have begun to try and tackle the challenge of how to regulate the collection and use of data, such a piecemeal, fragmented approach runs the risk of creating barriers to production, trade, innovation and cooperation. It also poses risks for national sovereignty, as ‘data havens’ emerge to exploit the gaps. Without a common global approach, how will individuals and communities feel reassured that their data are being treated with respect and enjoy similar protections irrespective of where they are being held? How can they trust businesses or their governments? How can businesses have the confidence to invest in the digital economy without knowing what their obligations are?

A Global Data Convention would constitute an integrated set of data principles and standards that unite national governments, public institutions, private sector, civil society organizations and academia. These universal principles and standards would set out the elements of responsible and ethical handling and sharing of data and the global institution or institutions that would provide incentives for applying these principles and overseeing their consistent application across different communities. Any such convention would need to address privacy of personal data, access to data, the exchange of data, data interoperability and data transparency, to name a few. While these issues are being widely discussed and appear to be broadly agreed upon, they lack universally accepted definitions and ways to operationalize them in practice. There are many players from different parts of the data ecosystem calling for a convention – or something similar – but they are using different terms; a Digital Geneva Convention, a Data Commons, a Bretton Woods for AI, and most recently the UN Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. These all sound very different, but perhaps not quite as different as first appears. When you distil these issues down, the common denominator is data.

The volume of data generated globally is increasing exponentially
The volume of data generated globally is increasing exponentially
Image: Seagate / IDC

A Global Data Convention could move beyond establishing ethical principles and create a global architecture that also includes standards and incentives for compliance. To do so it should build upon the existing canon of international human rights and other conventions, laws and treaties that set out useful principles and compliance mechanisms and build upon them. Such an architecture could be the foundation for rethinking the data economy, promoting open data, encouraging data exchange, and facilitating trade mechanisms.

A Global Data Convention will need a supporting a global institution to bring together the many data communities and ecosystems, that comprise not only of national governments, private sector and civil society but also including those who represent artificial intelligence, digital and IT services. This is a critical point. Modern data ecosystems are not controlled by states alone, so any convention, commons, or Bretton Woods-type agreement will require a multitude of stakeholders and signatories. This institution(s) would maintain and update data standards, oversee accountability frameworks, and support mechanisms to facilitate the exchange and responsible use of data.