By Sivakami d/o Arunachalam, Undergraduate Research Assistant

Presenting live at conferences is always a different feeling from presenting in a virtual set-up where we stare at our laptop screens, much like how listening to a live orchestra emanates a different sentiment than listening to songs on our devices. Thankfully, researchers at our centre were lucky to experience that feeling now that borders are gradually opening up for international travel. But fret not, we got you covered — in case you missed the conference, you may view it here.

On June 28 2022, a hybrid conference, ‘Empowering People in their Digital Lives: A Conference on Digital Self Determination (DSD)’ was held at Musee Olympique, Lausanne in Switzerland.

It was hosted by the Directorate of International Law (DIL) of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) in collaboration with the Federal Office of Communications (OFCOM) and the International Network on DSD (

Of course, when we hear Switzerland, the first thing that comes to mind is the breathtaking and picturesque scenes which our researchers have snapped for us to enjoy!

Before exploring what unfolded during the conference, let’s unpack what DSD means. Broadly, it is a concept to understand how the freedom of individuals and data subjects (people whose data is being used by an external actor) is affected by digitalisation.

Professor Mark James Findlay, Director of CAIDG, Assistant Professor Nydia Remolina, Fintech Track Lead at CAIDG, and Zhang Wenxi, Research Associate at CAIDG presented their findings on the theoretical framework of DSD, and open banking at the conference.

Professor Mark shared that DSD is all about paradox where it assumes a dual quality of being simple and complex simultaneously. While it can be context-specific and be applied in domains including but not limited to finance, healthcare, and education, it is fundamentally rooted in one central principle which focuses on the data subject. He added that DSD is a ‘new regulatory grammar’ that is not dependent on the intervention of external regulatory agencies or regimes. Instead, it creates spaces that offer opportunities for participation. DSD is important to fill the governance gap globally when it comes to responsible data access and management in a climate of data being primarily valued as a market commodity. What makes DSD unique from existing regulatory frameworks is its focus on empowering the data subject via creating respectful data relationships. Through DSD, we can witness the underlying issue in valuing data as a commodity and not the wider public goods. Having said that, it is difficult to find the ’sweet spot’ to motivate stakeholders, especially data subjects, to participate. To achieve initial participation, it is crucial that data subjects, in particular, are informed about the location and use of their data, thereby gaining opportunities for choice and safe spaces for determining their data relationships.

This well-rounded and comprehensive explanation of DSD was well-received by the academics at the conference.

In Assistant Professor Nydia and Wenxi’s presentation, they expounded on the concept of open finance. Open finance is when financial institutions enable third parties to access information needed to develop apps, thereby increasing transparency. They presented a use case on how industry players and regulators can find a balance. They shared that trustworthy digital spaces are characterized by inclusive engagement where data is responsibly exchanged, and data subjects are the first line of decisions. It can be enabled by recognizing costs incurred in managing data safety and responsibility. There should be regulatory oversight exercised to ‘police the boundaries’ of data flow along with respectful data access and management. They also spoke on the challenges of operationalizing DSD, such as the conflict between open access and privacy concerns, complexities with secondary data use and lack of awareness of DSD.

Wenxi shared that her main takeaways include the presence of mistrust in data handling.

‘People don’t understand the data that they have and don’t trust that by opening up data access it can be mutually beneficial to data subjects and data users.’ She added that ‘DSD might not necessarily correct market imbalances — that is a fundamental economic problem. But it makes for more sustainable data relationships.’

Regarding the insights gained from the other papers presented, Professor Nydia shared, ‘Including the data subject’s perspective in the discussions with stakeholders is important. However, in some use cases, this involves some challenges that might even undermine the possibility of starting a discussion about how to implement DSD. That could be the case in the studio of migration, as presented by Stefaan Verhulst (Co-founder and Chief Research and Development Officer, GovLab, New York University). Migrants are not interested in sharing their information and engaging in discussions with authorities. Hence, considering the data subject is important but not in all cases, the data subject should be part of the stakeholders group when designing the studio.’

Undoubtedly, the conference presented the application of DSD in a myriad of contexts, including cross-border migration, education, tourism, disability and youths, which opened up the gateway of possibilities and showcased the nuances in how DSD unfolds in various domains.

For example, Wenxi referenced Elisabeth Sylvan’s (Managing Director, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University) use case on Education. “There is a misalignment of understanding as to the challenges of data. To teachers, school admins and students in the US, testing (by large companies) is data, and that is not seen as problematic. Whereas they are less comfortable with audio/video footages of children, but those are not seen as data. It is difficult to achieve DSD (in any context) without first understanding what there is.”

Not only was the conference a great opportunity to meet academics and industry leaders face-to-face in the new normal, but it was eye-opening to exchange perspectives with knowledge experts in the DSD arena, especially in a time where technology adoption is accelerating at an astronomical pace. I believe we all can agree that the power of face-to-face conversations enabled via networking sessions where we bounce off ideas organically is an unparalleled exposure.

“It was interesting to see how the concept of DSD is well-received among stakeholders, policymakers, and academics. Even though there are different perspectives on the same concept, everyone seems to understand and be aware of the relevance of empowering data subjects in the digital age. This conference enhanced our views about DSD, specially on the potential that DSD has to create trustworthy digital spaces in contexts that face different approaches to data protection and data privacy. DSD goes beyond the legal notions of data protection. One of the things I liked the most about this conference was to meet in person so many people we have been working with in the International Network on Digital Self Determination. We have been working for a couple of years on this initiative, and due to the pandemic, this was the first time the team met in person,” said Assistant Professor Nydia.

Wenxi enjoyed the fact that the conference brought together different understandings and interpretations of DSD in different contexts, thereby giving a platform to hear global perspectives. She said, “The conference was in hybrid format, which provided a lot of flexibility and wider outreach, including to participants of the Global South. It allowed us to showcase our thinking both in theoretical and more contextually grounded terms, which is a blend that reaches out to not just the academic crowd but also practitioners and regulators, etc.”

Prior to the conference, DSD International Network participants met in Montreux to chart the way forward. We look forward to the consolidation of our work into a global initiative which will advance the possibilities and potential of DSD to a wider audience. The CAIDG team will continue to work closely with our Swiss friends and other network partners to achieve this outcome.