This blog post features the key topics addressed in the panel discussion titled "Navigating Today’s Geopolitical Landscape through the Lens of Digital Sovereignty and Digital Self-Determination" at the 2024 World Economic Forum (WEF) Conference in Davos. Organized by digitalswitzerland and the Swiss Data Alliance, this event marked the official launch of the International Network on Digital Self-Determination Website. 

Panel Fanny Pulfer 3The session started with a keynote by Ambassador Roger Dubach, Deputy Director of the Directorate of International Law at the FDFA. In his speech, Ambassador Dubach underscored  the dual challenges posed by the proliferation of digital data: on one side, its vast potential for enhancing various aspects of life, and on the other, the geopolitical complexities and national interests, which have complicated the creation of common international regulations. Dubach introduced the concepts of "digital self-determination" and "digital sovereignty" as central to Switzerland's approach to data governance. While digital sovereignty addresses national concerns about dependence in the digital sphere and is a top-down approach focusing on a State’s control and autonomy over data, digital self-determination represents a bottom-up and negotiated approach focusing on empowering individuals and communities to control their data. He also discussed Switzerland's initiatives in promoting responsible and sustainable data use, emphasizing the need for trustworthy data spaces and participatory processes to mitigate data, information, and agency asymmetries. Finally, he announced the launch of the International Network on Digital Self-Determination website, aiming to foster a global conversation about data governance.

Following this, the panel discussion featured speakers including Casper Klynge, Senior Vice President at the Danish Chamber of Commerce and Ambassador of Denmark (ret.), Stefaan Verhulst, Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer at The GovLab, and Christina Raab, Market Unit Lead at Accenture for Austria, Switzerland, and Germany.  The discussion was moderated by Fanny Pulver, Legal Officer at the Directorate of International Law at the FDFA. 

Fanny suggested a panel discussion to explore the ideas of digital sovereignty and digital self-determination, examining them from various perspectives. The panel aimed to gain a clearer understanding of these evolving concepts. It sought to determine if they offer promising ways for navigating both our digitally interconnected world and the complexities of the current geopolitical environment.

The Need to Rethink Data Governance

In today's digital landscape, data stands as a critically valuable asset. To unlock this potential and address data asymmetries, it necessitates innovative approaches to data and technology. Switzerland is at the forefront, advocating for a more human-centric approach towards data governance. Then, the discussion started with a pivotal question for the panelists : is there a pressing need for a new approach to data governance? If so, what roles do the concepts of digital sovereignty and digital self-determination play in shaping this new framework?

The panel started on whether a new approach to data governance is essential, and how the concepts of digital sovereignty and digital self-determination might shape this evolving landscape. These were the highlights of the discussion:

  • Increasing Global Interdependencies and Challenges to Sovereignty  

Christina Raab started discussing the growing consensus on the need for trust and control in a globalized world in which data, digitalisation and the ability of states to control their destiny becomes more and more important. She pointed out recent events like the COVID-19 pandemic, the energy crisis, and the Suez Canal incident as examples that illustrate the growing dependencies from a digital and supply chain market perspective and, thereto related limitations to sovereignty and self-determination. Casper Klynge, echoed this in adding that concerns of dependencies, especially technology dependencies, are also real within the private sector, noting that most tech companies are non-European. Digital sovereignty, in the sense of a genuine choice is thus also key for the private sector and for competitiveness.

Christina Raab further emphasized that digital sovereignty involves more than just regulation. It includes, for example, control over hardware, software, data storage, and knowledge. This broad definition of digital sovereignty challenges the idea of complete independence and autonomy, suggesting instead a model based on informed choices, shared values and the ability to choose with whom to partner.  

  • Outdated Data Governance 

Digital dependencies certainly have implications on the data front. In the view of Casper Klynge, a main reason why data governance is the flavour of the day, particularly in Europe, lies exactly in these current corporate and state dependencies.  

In this sense, Stefaan Verhulst stated that current data governance approaches are outdated and are primarily centered around preventing data misuse. This has led to the underutilization of data for potentially beneficial purposes, as they were collected, accessible and used for specific, singular purposes. This is a mismatch, however, with the real innovation of digital data, namely that it can be re-used for other purposes and shared with other actors.  

He stated that the current approach of data governance that is based on the consent model, particularly for personal data, has three main flaws. First, the lack of informed consent, essentially reduced to mere box-checking without a clear and comprehensive explanation. Second, the binary nature of consent choices, offering no room for negotiation with data subjects regarding their preferences for data usage. And finally, the disregard for community interests. These limitations overlook the value of data in the digital era, which lies in its potential for reuse in diverse and innovative ways. 

  •  Need for Innovative Approaches and the Concept of DSD 

The increasing use of artificial intelligence adds another layer to the discussion and to the need to incorporate new approaches in the discussion. Christina highlighted how crucial it is for businesses, especially those leveraging generative AI and foundational models, to strike a balance between the commercial value of data and robust data governance. She explained that effective governance should ensure availability, usability, integrity and security, thereby boosting consumer trust and fostering digital self-determination.

Stefaan, on the other hand, shed light on the essential role of data partnerships in the context of generative AI. He argued that these partnerships are vital for accessing varied data sets, which are key to enhancing the quality of foundational AI models and unlocking new insights. However, he stressed the importance of ensuring that these processes respect the interests of individuals and communities represented in the datasets, making the concept of DSD increasingly pertinent.  He pointed out the need to align AI model outputs with societal preferences. Traditionally, these preferences have been determined by developers or engineers. However, a more sustainable approach would involve considering the intended use of the input data, and DSD might play a critical role in ensuring this alignment.

Therefore, he introduced the concept of DSD as a transformative solution. He stated that "DSD is about empowering individuals and communities; not just about individual consent but about negotiating and bargaining what the conditions and preferences are for data (re)use". This approach not only fosters individual agency but also helps data holders gain the social license necessary for the responsible reuse of data. DSD would thus bring a fresh breeze towards data governance being about agency and a human-centric design that would allow for more equitable negotiations on how data should be used.

From Principle to Practice: Rethinking Data Governance in the AI Era 

During the second part of the conversation, panellists discussed the transition from theoretical principles, such as DSD, to practical applications in data governance. Each one offered their perspective on how to operationalize these concepts effectively. 

Christina emphasized the critical role of education and learning in both public and corporate spheres. For individuals, particularly consumers, to make self-determined decisions about their data and the technology they use, a comprehensive understanding of these elements is essential. Similarly, companies aiming for successful transformation must ensure the constant learning of employees, a well-informed leadership, and agreed values in terms of data governance. This educational approach is critical for empowering both consumers and employees in the digital age. 

Casper echoed the importance of having a common understanding and added that there is a significant responsibility that rests on companies developing and providing technologies, especially concerning data sets with societal relevance. Therefore, he argued that companies should not only focus on avoiding misuse of technology but also foster competition in the market as the path forward for tech companies to embrace these societal responsibilities as part of their business model. This requires investment and regulation that do not push SMEs (Small and midsize enterprises) aside in terms of business opportunities by being overly complex.  

Finally, Stefaan Verhulst introduced four key areas to operationalize DSD and data governance as a whole: Processes, People, Products, and Policies. He highlighted two areas in particular. Firstly, the 'Processes' involves engaging and empowering data subjects to participate in discussions and negotiations about the conditions for data reuse. Secondly, 'People' refers to the emergence of new roles, such as Data Stewards, within organizations. These data stewards are distinct from Chief Data Officers or Chief Data Protection Officers, focusing instead on responding to data solicitations in a systematic, sustainable, and responsible manner. Stefaan expressed concern that while the EU has placed huge emphasis on legislation and digital infrastructure, it may have neglected the human infrastructure necessary to support DSD and enhance access to data for societal benefits. 

Collaboration and Cooperation: The Way Forward 

To close the session, Fanny suggested that the essence of adopting an innovative approach to data governance seems to lie in effective collaboration and cooperation across various sectors. In this regard, Christina asserted that a fundamental shift in data governance begins with a common understanding of the need for change across different actors. Establishing shared values is not just beneficial but also a prerequisite for meaningful collaboration. She emphasized the importance of platforms like Davos and the International Network on DSD, which facilitate the convergence of diverse stakeholders, fostering a collaborative environment.

Casper highlighted the dual responsibility of collaboration, where governments and companies must work together and find a balance between regulation and technological innovation. Companies must internalize their engagement with governments beyond mere commercial interests. Their use of data and powerful technologies has transformative societal impacts, necessitating a collaborative approach that transcends business objectives.

In addition, Stefaan outlined the relevance of initiatives like the International Network on DSD, underscoring their practical interests beyond academic discussions. These platforms serve as a stage for active engagement, offering a venue to validate if new concepts in data governance, such as DSD, are the right path forward. Stefaan's call to action invited everyone's input, emphasizing the importance of contextual exploration and the identification of practical use cases for DSD.

At the end, we extended an invitation to organizations to participate and work together to develop processes that apply the principles of DSD, ensuring a future where data governance is not only innovative but also inclusive and responsible. This collaborative approach is not just a path forward but a necessary evolution in how we handle and govern data in our increasingly digital world.


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