This blog features the key points addressed during the 27th Commission on Science and Technology for Development, in Ginevra. The ISDN participated in the event with a speech and a side event, both of which aimed to highlight the importance of self-determination in the current data and AI governance landscape.

On April 16th and 17th, the core team of the International Digital Self-Determination Network (IDSD) convened alongside the 27th UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) in Geneva to review applications of digital self-determination (DSD). 

While there, Dr Stefaan Verhulst–Co-Founder of The GovLab (New York) and The Data Tank (Brussels)–had the opportunity to address the Commission about DSD. In particular, he noted the immense potential of digital data to address global challenges such as pandemics and climate change, when made accessible for re-use responsibly. However, existing data governance models often fail to support the effective reuse of data, largely due to the constraints imposed by informed consent, and other provisions. These constraints, while designed to prevent data misuse and serve the public interest, also frequently hinder the realization of significant societal benefits. To address these challenges, the International Digital Self-Determination Network proposed the principle and practice of digital self-determination (DSD). Dr Verhulst explained that DSD aims to empower communities and individuals to make informed decisions regarding the use of their data, complementing consent, thereby enhancing the overall value and integrity of data ecosystems.

He also elaborated on how the realization of digital self-determination could be achieved through participatory processes, the formulation of new policies, and the establishment of trusted data spaces. These mechanisms, he emphasized, would enable individuals and communities to effectively express and enforce their preferences for data reuse.

DSD focuses on preventing both the misuse of data and the missed opportunities for its beneficial use. Implementing this principle requires a comprehensive approach that involves diverse actors’ perspectives and various contexts. Achieving a common understanding and developing actionable tools are essential for the practical application of digital self-determination.

To advance these efforts, Dr Verhulst introduced the International Network as a collaboration of the Directorate of International Law (DIL) of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), in cooperation with the Office for Communications (OfCom) and other partners. This international network, he noted, is pivotal in shaping a framework that supports the ethical and effective use of data across borders and sectors.

Following a speech by Dr Stefaan Verhulst at the CSTD, the DSD Network hosted a side event that further explored the practical implementation of the principles discussed. This side event brought together a diverse group of stakeholders, including policymakers, academics, industry leaders, and representatives from civil society, to delve into the operational aspects of digital self-determination. 

The side event opened with two presentations by Roger Dubach–Ambassador Roger Dubach, Deputy Director at DIL, FDFA–and Stefaan Verhulst on DSD. First, Roger highlighted the inherent trade-off between data use and protection, emphasizing the importance of involving various actors in the decision-making process to enhance data utility without compromising security. He stressed the significance of understanding what makes data trustworthy and the role of actors in this dynamic. The Swiss government’s mandate to develop a code of conduct for trustworthy data spaces was a focal point. Roger outlined four foundational principles essential for these spaces:

  1. Transparency: Making the operations within data spaces open and understandable to all stakeholders.

  2. Fairness: Ensuring fair treatment of all actors in a data space.

  3. Control: Providing stakeholders the ability to control how their data is used.

  4. Effectiveness: Ensuring that the data spaces operate efficiently and serve their intended purposes.

Finally, he also addressed the necessity for interoperability and robust data governance to utilize data from multiple sources effectively.

Second, Stefaan discussed changing our approach to making decisions and solving problems with data. He underscored data as a critical asset that, if managed wisely, could transform societal functions. Stefaan articulated the challenges in current data governance frameworks, which DSD aims to resolve by preventing misuse and missed use of data. He explored the concept of asymmetry—both in data possession and agency—and how DSD addresses these through more inclusive governance that extends beyond mere consent. Stefaan expanded on moving from principle to practice in DSD, highlighting the need for comprehensive strategies encompassing policies, processes, products, technologies, and the pivotal role of people and organizations. 

Following the two presentations, Ana Cristina Amoroso Das Neves, Chair of the CSTD, made some final remarks. She particularly brought to light some critical perspectives on data and its governance, reflecting on insights shared by Virginia Dignum during the CSTD meeting. Dignum’s assertion that "data is not a natural source, but an artifact" was pivotal, underscoring the manufactured nature of data and its implications for governance. This perspective challenges us to consider data as a construct that reflects and perpetuates the biases and priorities of its creators.

Ana referenced the concept of "WEIRD" data—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—and how this reflects how global data norms and AI perceptions are disproportionately influenced. Reporting Dignum’s remarks, she reported how AI visualizes the world, with significant space given to North America, the EU, and China, while regions like Africa are designed as tiny, shrunk pieces of land. This visual disparity highlights how skewed the current data landscape is, emphasizing the concentration of data control and an even higher need for digital self-determination for communities, states, and organizations.

Finally, a roundtable discussion took place. The main highlights from the roundtable discussion included:

Identifying and Understanding Communities

One of the primary challenges discussed was the identification and definition of "communities" within the context of DSD. Participants acknowledged that communities are not uniform entities; they are fluid and multifaceted, with varying interests, vulnerabilities, and expectations. This diversity demands governance structures that are not only flexible but also capable of adapting to the unique characteristics and needs of different communities. The discourse highlighted the importance of recognizing and mapping these varied community contours to ensure that DSD initiatives are inclusive and representative.

Community Focus Versus Individual Focus in Data Governance

A significant portion of the discussion critiqued the current focus of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on individual rights, pointing out its limitations in addressing community-level needs. The conversation pointed to the concept of "legitimate interest" as potentially more aligned with social licenses, suggesting a paradigm shift towards frameworks that prioritize community benefits alongside, or even above, individual interests. This shift acknowledges the collective nature of many data environments where community-oriented approaches might offer more holistic benefits.

Engaging Communities in Data Governance

The importance of involving communities in the governance of their data from the very beginning of any DSD process was another critical point raised. Participants emphasized that genuine community engagement helps to ensure that data governance frameworks are not only reflective of community needs and values but are also more likely to be respected and adhered to. The discussion stressed the role of social licenses and social contracts in this context, emphasizing the need to align DSD with broader societal expectations and contractual frameworks.

Addressing Asymmetries within Communities

Finally, the roundtable tackled the issue of power asymmetries within and between communities, which can skew how data is used and who benefits from that usage. There was a strong consensus on the need for mechanisms that redistribute power in data governance, ensuring that vulnerable and marginalized groups have significant input into decisions about how data concerning them is collected, used, and shared. This focus on equity was indeed stressed as crucial for the legitimacy and efficacy of DSD frameworks.

In conclusion, the IDSD side event illuminated the complex interplay of factors that must be considered when implementing DSD at a community level, highlighting the necessity for flexible, inclusive, and equitable governance frameworks that respect both the diversity and the specific needs of different communities.