Time for a new digital and data governance path, eCommerce Week highlights

26 April 2022

Better global governance of digital tools and platforms – and the data they produce – is urgently needed to avoid further fragmentation of the internet and wider inequalities.

Digital economy, e-commerce
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Surging cross-border data flows require a balanced global governance approach that maximizes development gains, spreads the benefits equitably and minimizes the risks and harms.

“Governance is what will determine the outcome of digital transformation,” UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan said on 25 April at a high-level session of the organization’s eCommerce Week 2022.

The event that runs from 25 to 29 April has brought together UN experts, government officials, business leaders, civil society representatives and academics to find innovative solutions to ensure digitalization leads to more inclusive and sustainable development.

Ms. Grynspan said governance should help ensure data can be harnessed to deal with climate change, pandemics, productivity and urban planning, while protecting the privacy of users and national security and ensuring the benefits from data are shared more equitably.

Global internet protocol traffic – a proxy for data flows – has more than tripled since 2017, according to UNCTAD’s Digital Economy Report 2021. But just two countries – China and the US – are reaping most of the benefits, accounting for 50% of the world’s hyperscale data centres.

Meanwhile, nearly 3 billion people remain offline, 96% of whom live in developing countries.

The UN can help accelerate progress in this area, Ms. Grynspan said, by coordinating its various data-related activities and building links to other processes and initiatives led by civil society, academia and the private sector.

“It is more important than ever that we bring great minds from all stakeholders together,” she said.

New risks and challenges

President of the UN General Assembly Abdulla Shahid said the fragmented hallmarks of digitalization have generated new risks and challenges, particularly around inequality.

“Nowhere was this more evident than during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mr. Shahid said.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have sent sales soaring for the top 13 e-commerce platforms, from $2.4 trillion in 2019 to $3.9 trillion in 2021, but less than 10% of people in the least developed countries (LDCs) shopped online.

And those in LDCs with an internet access had a broadband connection that was about three times slower than for people in developed countries.

“Remote education, remote work, and remote access to goods and services, were, relatively speaking, the luxuries of a few,” he said.

The traditional digital connectivity divide is now being compounded by a data divide, raising the risk of widening inequalities.

Mr. Shahid said digital and data governance must be done with urgency and enhanced cooperation, as “no single corporation or business should ever have the means to monopolize the governance and regulation of a public good.”

Data use has wide implications

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said the soaring use of data has profound implications not just for trade and economic development but also for human rights and peace and security.

“How we deal with data will have a huge impact on our ability to achieve the sustainable development goals,” Ms. Mohammed said.

Data are no different from other global commons and public goods, she said, hence they should be governed as such.

Cross-border flows of data are currently regulated by various international, regional and national laws and instruments.

Need for holistic approach

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf called for a holistic governance framework that reflects the multiple dimensions of data and reduces the risk of further fragmentation of the internet.

“Political and technical fragmentation may be in our future if we don't find a way to work together,” he warned. “We may find people rejecting the internet if they feel it's not too safe.”

Mr. Cerf, a vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google, said if stakeholders resolve existing governance policy issues, however, technology would accelerate and lead to more inclusive outcomes.

“We have to move forward in a more coordinated way,” he said, as this would create a more productive future, reduce inequalities and help humanity tackle other pressing challenges such as climate change.