A Global Data Convention to safeguard sustainable development

Data is the single word that defines our age. Data are easily shared, duplicated, and traded, the glue that binds and drives the digital economy, the cloud, blockchain, the Internet-of-Things, and even our politics. They offer promise but also peril – they are a tool for liberation, but also potentially a weapon for exploitation.

Data transcend borders, challenge national sovereignty and are increasingly being thought of as a new form of capital. 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 which risks creating barriers to production, trade, innovation and cooperation.

Given the importance of data for the modern digital economy, for surveillance, and for AI, there will be few more important geopolitical issues in the coming years. Hence the chief statisticians of the international statistical system are calling for a Global Data Convention.

We argue such a convention is needed to safeguard the safe and ethical use of data to support a social contract that strikes a balance between the full use of data for development and wellbeing; the protection of security, privacy, and human rights; and between commercial use and public good. Without such a balance, sustainable development will be at risk.

A Global Data Convention would constitute an integrated set of data principles and standards that unite national governments, public institutions, the private sector, civil society organizations and academia. These would include elements such as: privacy of personal data; data accessibility; data exchange; data interoperability; and transparency, to name a few.

While these issues are being widely discussed and appear to be broadly agreed, they lack universally accepted definitions and ways to operationalize them in practice. Different players from different parts of the data ecosystem are calling for a convention – or something similar – but they are all using different terms: A Digital Geneva Convention, a Data Commons or a Bretton Woods for AI. These all sound very different, but in fact are all quite similar and when you distil these issues down, they are all essentially about data.

Data can be used for a huge variety of purposes – local, national and global public policy, commercial and emergency – and by a wide array of actors. This presents some challenges:

  1. How do we balance the well-being of individuals with that of communities, ensuring insight can gained from data to improve everyone’s lives, while protecting privacy and shielding people from misuse and abuse of data?
  2. 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?
  3. How can data best support a competitive, thriving, and diverse market for innovations that improve and enrich human lives? A Global Data Convention could provide a framework to ensure that data are safeguarded as a global public good and as a resource to achieve equitable and sustainable development.

The key to such an approach would be a set of universal principles and standards that set out the elements of responsible, 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.

A Global Data Convention would help avoid a fragmentation where each country or region adopts their own solution by promoting common objectives. This would give individuals and enterprises confidence that data relevant to them carries similar protections and obligations no matter where they are collected or used.

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

This will require a new type of global architecture. 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 – states, civil society, and the private sector at the very least.

Therefore, to support the convention, a global institution(s) will be needed to bring together the many data communities and ecosystems, that are comprised not only of national governments, private sector and civil society but also of those who represent artificial intelligence, digital and IT services. These institution(s) would maintain and update data standards, oversee accountability frameworks, and support mechanisms to facilitate the exchange and responsible use of data.