By: Natalia González Alarcón & Stefaan G. Verhulst

In an age where technology permeates every aspect of our lives, from social interactions to financial transactions, the concept of digital self-determination has emerged as a powerful response to the challenges posed by an increasingly digitized world. As our lives become intertwined with the digital world, it has become crucial for individuals to assert their autonomy and control over their digital identities, personal data, and online experiences. This concept empowers individuals and communities as well as entities, promotes transparency and accountability, supports digital inclusion, and highlights the ethical considerations associated with emerging technologies.

However, the concept might seem a bit ambiguous when thinking theoretically. That is why the International Network on Digital Self-Determination aimed to explore how to translate that concept into practice.

On June 20th, 2023, we held a panel titled “Empowering Our Digital Journey: Unleashing the Potential of Digital Self-Determination” that took place at OGR Torino — the new hub of innovation and art in Turin (Italy). We explored a diverse range of use cases where the digital self-determination principle helps individuals and communities to navigate the complex landscape of the digital world while maintaining agency and protecting their fundamental rights.

The panel brought together members of the International Network on Digital Self-Determination and representatives of the Torino Data Community to discuss the importance of this new concept in today’s real contexts. While a full recording of the conversation can be found here, this blog summarizes the main takeaway that emerged from this engaging panel discussion.

Moderated by The GovLab’s Co-founder Stefaan Verhulst, the panel consisted of Bishakha Datta (Executive Director at Point of View, Mumbai, India), Wenxi Zhang (Research Associate at the Center for AI and Data Governance, Singapore Management University), Claude Kamau (Lecturer at Strathmore University, Kenya) and Elisabeth Sylvan (Managing Director of the Berkman Klein Center, Harvard University), who reflected on their experience on specific applied cases of DSD. In the conversation we explored the different notions of self, different notions of determination but also different notions of digital. They gave a bit of context of the use cases and some lessons learned from them:

  • Disability: Bishakha discussed the concept of digital self-determination (DSD) and its application in the context of disability, highlighting a use case in India, the world’s most populous country, where the population of Mobile SIM cards is even bigger and where 15% of people have some disability — approximately 200 million people. The use case emphasized that while individuals with disabilities often rely on others in physical spaces, they perceive digital spaces as spaces of freedom where they can enjoy a greater level of self-determination since they don’t have to depend on somebody else. The importance of negotiation and the complexity of consent were underscored, as people with disabilities face unique challenges that have to do with both behavioral accessibility and technical considerations. Bishakha emphasized that empowering individuals with disabilities through negotiation can lead to more inclusive environments, benefiting a wider range of vulnerable populations, including older people, and fostering a more self-determining digital world.
  • Mobile Money Services: Claude explained how mobile money services became a disruptive technology in Kenya, highlighting that it is a country of 51 million people, with around 35 million active phone owners, where every registered phone is also on a mobile money platform. Mobile money technology has become ubiquitous since it has incorporated multiple services, from banking services to social interactions in the network. Therefore, mobile money data has become extremely valuable, including spending choices, geolocation, and the nature of transfers. What Claude realized is that power asymmetries can pose significant challenges in a monopolized market where a single company holds 99 percent of the mobile money services penetration. In that sense, DSD can play a critical role when reinforcing trust in mobile money users since, according to Claude, data protection hasn’t seemed to help. These power asymmetries come from agency imbalances caused by information asymmetry between the dominant company and its customers. Recognizing and addressing these asymmetries is crucial to promote a more equitable and empowering mobile money market that enables greater agency and digital self-determination for all.
  • Open finance: Wenxi described her use case in open finance by defining it as the interaction between financial institutions when opening up the access of consumers’ data to trusted third-party providers, usually facilitated by APIs with consumer consent. She explained that while there are risks and opportunities associated with the use of secondary data, the role of the data subject remains a key concern in data governance within open finance. Talking with industry leaders, fintech firms, and regulators to explore the implementation of DSD in the open finance space, helped to understand the motivations for organizations to engage in more responsible data management. Wenxi highlighted a couple: First, there is a reputational risk associated with data practices that could impact companies’ performance and public perception. Second, there are information asymmetries among data subjects in terms of digital and financial literacy, which can influence individuals’ decisions regarding their continued use of the companies’ services. Therefore, industry leaders and firms have a vested interest in fostering better understanding and trust among users, such as through a DSD approach, to align financial and performance objectives.
  • Online learning: Liz discussed the initial promise of online learning and learning analytics in understanding student performance and learning progress. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it presented a test for online learning’s potential. However, as more tools were introduced, the expected outcomes did not necessarily materialize. While the experience was challenging, exploring productive uses of data, students’ digital experiences, and teachers’ effective data utilization helped to understand how young people can be digitally self-determined in their educational journey. A couple of the identified challenges were that education administrators had vast amounts of data without effectively generating actionable information, and there is a misalignment of incentive structures among stakeholders responsible for overseeing young people’s learning. In particular, when it comes to Edtech companies. However, school and district administrators also have differing motivations and expectations regarding data usage, which may not align with the goal of promoting learners’ digital self-determination.

At the end of the discussion, Ciro Cattuto, the Scientific Director of ISI Foundation and Juan Carlos de Martin, Full Professor of Computer Engineering at Polytechnic of Turin and Co-director of the NEXA Center for Internet & Society, reacted to the conversation and added a couple of interesting reflections:

  • On the one hand, Ciro mentioned the COVID-19 emergency, when the implementation of contact tracing apps as a digital response faced challenges. The misaligned incentives between the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Innovation, and Regional Health Protection Agencies, generated fragmentation within the Italian national response and hindered the effectiveness of the apps. Many concerns were related to the false dichotomy between data protection and health protection. Although the app was designed to prioritize privacy by providing exposure notifications without sharing personal information, the lack of public communications supporting its use due to insufficient social license, resulted in low adoption rates. This situation emphasized the need to involve citizens in the design process to promote digital self-determination, a missed opportunity due to time constraints.
  • On the other hand, Juan Carlos proposed to add an additional layer to the principle of DSD related to the notion of digital sovereignty. He pointed out that when thinking about hard components of digital power — such as big tech companies, cloud computing, chips, etc– European countries, for example, have experienced a significant decline in their digital self-determination. In this sense, the absence of European presence in key components of digital power, raises questions about the ability of nations to demand and provide self-determination for different groups of citizens when they themselves cannot exercise it.

Key learnings:

  • Digital Self-Determination is context specific and based upon principled negotiation: DSD as a design principle goes beyond treating data subjects merely as passive recipients of digital services and moves away from the traditional approach of consent that often lacks meaningful engagement. DSD as a concept can be understood and interpreted locally according to the context and conditions of the specific populations, exacerbating the need to run principled negotiations to create involvement in the communities and identify their concerns from the beginning. By integrating DSD into the design and infrastructure of digital systems, we can cultivate more inclusive digital services while empowering all individuals and communities involved in the data ecosystem.
  • There exist multiple pathways to operationalize Digital Self-Determination: To operationalize DSD, it is crucial to explore how this principle can be translated into practices at a technological and behavioral level. As mentioned, this involves considering specific interpretations of DSD based on the unique needs of different recipient communities. Additionally, ongoing conversations, negotiations, and communal involvement are essential to guide the pathways towards achieving DSD. A methodological approach through different mechanisms –policies, processes, roles, products– is critical to mitigate power and information imbalances generated by data and agency asymmetries.
  • Data literacy as a tool to empower individuals and communities: A deeper understanding of how people perceive and comprehend data is essential for building a strong relationship between data governance and digital self-determination. Data illiteracy presents a significant barrier that needs to be addressed through an operationalized DSD framework. It is vital to bridge the asymmetries in digital literacy among data subjects to enable them to navigate multiple digital services effectively, ensuring responsible data management and fostering implementable digital self-determination.

Overall, the discussion on digital self-determination provided a comprehensive overview of the challenges and opportunities we face in our digital journey. From the discussions, it became evident that digital self-determination is a multifaceted concept that requires collective action, transparency, and user-centric design. The panelists highlighted the importance of new participatory processes, technologies that are inclusive by design, and new positions such as data stewards. DSD, as a discourse within the data governance framework, can complement existing regimes and focus on vulnerable populations, without conflicting with legal rights or sovereignty. Moving forward, it is crucial for individuals, communities, entities and institutions to work together to unleash the potential of digital self-determination, ensuring that the digital future is built on principles of autonomy, empowerment, and respect for human rights.


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