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G20 Not the Right Forum to Discuss Global Cross Border Data Flows: Civil Society Orgs

Developing countries have not ‘bought into’ idea of free flow of data across borders, shold not be discussed at G20, says the open letter

Twelve civil society organisations have urged developing countries participating in the G20 to halt discussions promoting the free flow of data, “especially under the Presidency of India”.

The G20 is an inappropriate forum to discuss digital data governance given that a majority of G20 developing countries—like South Africa, India, and Indonesia—refuse to “buy into” this new term, observe the organisations in their November 18th letter.

This is because the free flow of data across the world is more about economic expropriation—or draining of resources—than it is about privacy and security, they argue. Developing countries are particularly concerned about the expropriation of their own data’s economic value—a form of “digital colonization”.

While the letter does not explain how this will happen, Apoorva Lalwani explains in an Observer Research Foundation brief, saying “while many nations and companies attempt to capitalise on the opportunities brought on by the digital revolution, only a handful of players such as Meta, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple dominate the space, all of whom are concentrated in the advanced economies. Since they have access to a sizable amount of data, they have a lot of power and so does their country of origin. The G20 then becomes an important forum to discuss data flow and sovereignty.”

The Data Free Flow with Trust (DFFT) discussions at the G20 have not addressed this concern raised by developing countries, the organisations conclude. Adopting such measures won’t guarantee economic growth for the developing world, say the organisations, pushing for the development of an independent, rights-based digital governance international treaty instead.

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Why it matters: A treaty establishing equitable global norms for Internet governance is certainly a welcome idea—especially given that international digital governance discussions are currently happening in siloed copyright, trade, and cybersecurity fora, among others. However, as experts have told MediaNama, getting countries to agree on the principles that should underlie it is easier said than done. Different countries propose or support different policies based on their own calculated self-interest—making building consensus even within the bloc of “developing countries” difficult. India too negotiates based on its own priorities, adopting blended stances at different multilateral groupings. Some say this flexibility may actually benefit negotiations at the G20—India’s lack of a hard stance on global tech policy issues may be able to bring voices to the negotiating table.

Signatories include the Asia-Europe Peoples Forum (AEPF),  Focus on the Global South, Seattle to Brussels (S2B) Network, Transnational Institute (TNI), Global Justice Now (GJN), IT for Change India, Indonesia for Global Justice (IGJ), Sahita Institute (Hints), Fresh Eyes (UK), Pakistan Rabita Committee, Fian (Indonesia), and Indonesian Human Rights for Social Justice.

What are the Data Free Flow with Trust (DFFT) discussions?

Leaders at the 2019 G20 summit presided over by Japan agreed to work on the DFFT vision. This led to the establishment of the “Osaka Track”, or a “collective term for the global governance processes needed to unleash the benefits of more open and trusted data flows”.

What this means: The discussions seek to develop cross border data flow regimes that promote innovation and trade. However, at the same time, these policies must ensure that the privacy, security, and intellectual property concerns of such transfers are also addressed—these are issues that “otherwise mar public trust in digital technologies”.

Why is India’s Presidency highlighted?: The letter is not explicit about that—simply stating that “the G20 is not an appropriate forum to discuss the issue of digital data governance where majority of G20 Developing Countries, like South Africa, India and Indonesia, in particular, are still refusing to buy into this new term”.

Lalwani’s brief elaborates, noting that India had not participated in previous DFFT discussions, and is hesitant to accept the proposals over its concerns on data accessibility—or that “once the information moves out to another country it will not be dealt equivalent to the information at home”.

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“In view of the huge digital divide among countries, there is a need for policy space for developing countries who still have to finalize laws around digital trade and data. Data is a potent tool for development and equitable access of data is a critical aspect for us,” said Minister of Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal in 2020 while stating that India is not in a position to accept the concept of DFFT.

Who’s responsible for this ‘exploitative’ model?

The civil society organisations point the finger at Big Tech. “The big tech companies have been lobbying states to regulate the free flow of data so they can keep the data monopoly,” argue the organisations. “Trade rules are being used to leverage this influence as a vehicle for expanding the big techs [sic] power and influence. We are increasingly seeing the incorporation of ‘digital chapters’ in trade agreements and negotiating E-commerce Agreements at the WTO.”

India’s latest draft data protection law notably relaxes restrictions on cross border data flows of personal data, allowing transfers to selected countries notified by the government. This comes after much criticism of the strict limitations on data transfers—critiqued not only by businesses, but by industry associations and foreign governments too.

What’s the solution proposed by the organisations?

The global community needs to consider cross-border data flows outside of trade, and in a more holistic manner, argue the civil society organisations. They support the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s proposal for a global data governance framework addressing data’s economic and non-economic aspects. “It is important that cross-border data flows are based on social and economic justice, and observe principles like fairness and justice, transparency, lawfulness, and reciprocity in relation to data-related benefits. Therefore, we need to develop a just global digital and data governance framework with an independent representative,” they argue.

What should the G20 developing countries do?: Take steps beyond the G20 to develop a just global data governance framework based on solidarity within countries of the global south, “strongly demand” the organisations. This should be established through an independent and representative multilateral mechanism backed by an international treaty. “Ensure the global digital and data governance and framework would not be governed in any international trade rules (WTO or bilateral and regional FTAs),” conclude the organisations.

Notably, the United Nations recently released a call for proposals on a new “Digital Compact” that will shape a rights-based approach to digital governance worldwide.

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Note: This post was updated at 12:30 pm on 06/12/2022  to correct a typographical error. 

This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

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I'm interested in stories that explore how countries use the law to govern technology—and what this tells us about how they perceive tech and its impacts on society. To chat, for feedback, or to leave a tip: aarathi@medianama.com

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