Better digital governance needed to balance data opportunities and risks

25 April 2022

As the global economy becomes increasingly digital, better rules are needed to protect people and the planet and ensure everyone can reap the world of online opportunities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made digital technologies and an internet connection even more important in our daily lives, as people and companies have moved even more online to work, learn, socialize, shop and do business.

But not everyone is reaping the benefits, especially the 2.9 billion people still without an internet connection. A heavier reliance on digital tools also poses risks to the environment, as they generate more CO2 emissions and e-waste.

Bridging the digital divide and tackling the risks of digitalization are at the heart of UNCTAD’s eCommerce Week, happening from 25 to 29 April.

Ahead of the event, Torbjörn Fredriksson, head of UNCTAD’s e-commerce and digital economy branch, and Andy Yen, founder and CEO of Proton Technologies, discussed what’s needed to strike a balance between the opportunities and risks of digitalization and a data-driven world.

Q: Why is it so crucial to address the challenges posed by digitalization?

Torbjörn Fredriksson: I think digitalization right now is one of the biggest developmental challenges confronting the world.

The digital transformation that was accentuated during the pandemic pointed to the unequal opportunities that existed between the ones that could and the ones that could not take advantage of digital solutions to cope with the negative effects of the pandemic – be it in the health care area or in the economic field.

This has immediately raised the awareness among the governments around the world that something needs to be changed. We cannot continue on the same trajectory because that will just result in even wider divides, even wider inequalities. But unfortunately, it’s going to be very difficult for individual governments to deal with all these issues on their own. We need to come together.

This is the time when the UN should do its job by bringing all the forces together to develop something that’s not good only for individual countries but for the planet as a whole.

Q: How can we make digital work for all countries?

Andy Yen: I think the way we need to tackle this problem is really by first coming from a regulations standpoint. The environment that exists today with five dominant tech companies that essentially rule the world is because we have for the past two decades really had an internet ecosystem that had very little to no regulation, both at the national level and also at the global level.

So having an approach that spans multiple countries, big and small, that really adapts to the reality of the economy today and allows us to put in commonsense regulations that lead to better competition and more fair ecosystem for all businesses to have the equal opportunity to succeed is going to be key to removing some of the inequalities that have developed over the past 20 years. 

Q: Some EU legislation has been drawn up to curb some of big tech’s powers. What do you think is missing?

Andy Yen: Well, the legislation that has recently been adopted by the EU – the Digital Markets Act (DMA) – is actually a very massive, positive step towards regulating tech companies. It’s actually the first legislation that has ever been introduced to tackle big tech. And the fact that we even have regulation to discuss is a big step up.

Now, the challenge will come not from the legislation itself or getting it passed. I think we have enough political will and momentum for that to happen. The real challenge will be in the enforcement afterwards.

Is the EU commission together with support from other governments around the world really going to be able to effectively enforce some of the measures that have been put in place through both the DMA and also similar legislation that has been proposed in over a dozen other countries around the world?

So, it’s the enforcement step that will really be the main challenge.

Q: Is there a need for something more global?

Torbjörn Fredriksson: I think so. It’s very important that we try to find global solutions that are taking into account the perspectives of countries at all levels of development.

But as Andy was stressing, it’s been fast evolving in the EU, but it’s been a long process to get to where the EU is right now. And it’s not evident that all parts of the world will feel the EU approach to this will be the desirable one. So we think it’s very important to find a platform where all countries at all levels of development have a say and the possibility to contribute to the dialogue on how to develop data governance.

Because data is at the heart of the digital transformation that we’re dealing with.

And from a UN perspective, from a global development perspective, it’s crucial to determine how we should deal with data so that further digital transformation really brings the results we would like to see. 

If we think about the pandemic, the fact we have been able to share data – scientific data – between different parts of the world has really helped to speed up the development of vaccines. At the same time, the increased use of digital solutions has also led to concerns about privacy – that people are not so happy about being traced by their governments in how they more around through various apps.

And we can see that if poorly handled, the surge in data is likely to result in greater power imbalances, widening inequalities and negative effects even on the environment, privacy and security.

We need to find a way to deal with both the opportunities and the risks associated with this data-driven world. And for that, we think that we need to come together across the world.