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UNCTAD calls for balanced global approach to manage digital data

10 May 2023

Stronger international cooperation on data governance and capacity-building can help bridge data and digital divides.

© Shutterstock/Westock Production | Students in India using their mobile phone. 

UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan has reiterated the organization’s call for a more balanced approach to global data governance for the benefit of people and the planet.

She spoke during the sixth session of UNCTAD’s intergovernmental group of experts on e-commerce and the digital economy in Geneva on 10 May. Read her speech.

The world currently has a global data governance system split in three, with some countries relying on the private sector for data management, others on citizens and others on the state itself.

Ms. Grynspan said global efforts towards a more balanced approach should “enable data to flow as freely as necessary and possible, while being able to address various development objectives.” 

To ensure an inclusive process with representation of all developing countries, she said the United Nations needs to play a key role in the process, which should be “multilateral, multisectoral and multi-stakeholder.”

The global data surge

Since 2015, the number of internet users in the world has increased from 3 billion to 5.3 billion, Ms. Grynspan noted.

Mobile broadband subscriptions have surged from 3 billion to almost 7 billion. And global internet protocol traffic – a proxy for data flows – has tripled from 46,000 to 150,000 gigabytes per second.

Ms. Grynspan said we have gone from a world where digital data is mostly shared by text (on Facebook), to a world where data is mostly shared by image (on Instagram), to a world where data is now mostly shared by video (on TikTok, YouTube).

“And these are still early days in the data-driven digital economy,” she said. With the spread of 5G, the growing number of Internet of Things devices and greater use of artificial intelligence (AI), data and data flows will continue expanding rapidly.

For example, AI-driven ChatGPT trained itself on 570 gigabites of text data – about 300 billion words, with 100 trillion parameters.

Data is deepening digital divides

But as captured by UNCTAD’s latest Digital Economy Report, data flows are deepening already existing digital divides. The US and China are the frontrunners in harnessing data, according to the report.

Many developing countries remain mostly providers of raw data to global digital platforms, while having to pay for the digital intelligence generated from their data.

While in some countries 80% of internet users shop online, in many developing countries this figure is less than 10%. Further, within countries, there are significant divides between rural and urban areas, as well as between men and women.

But countries such as India are narrowing the gap and turbocharging development through data-driven digital technologies.

India’s digital public infrastructure programme has added almost 9 million new taxpayers in the last five years and made digital payments almost universal.

Thanks to the programme, India has opened almost 500 million bank accounts in both urban and rural areas and lowered data costs by 90%.

Ms. Grynspan said effective data governance is critical to promoting responsible and ethical use of digital technologies, protecting individual rights and ensuring everyone can access the benefits of digitalization.

Data can work for development

UNCTAD’s director of technology and logistics, Shamika N. Sirimanne, said data is “a key strategic asset” that can help solve pressing societal, environmental and economic issues.

If well managed, data can help address global development challenges, such as pandemics and climate change, while promoting prosperity.

But negligent handling of data and data flows can contribute to adverse development outcomes on the environment, security, human rights and inequality.

Ms. Sirimanne said countries can better harness the development potential of data by developing governance frameworks that work for national priorities, while not impeding opportunities to be gained from sharing data across borders.