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G7 Tech Leaders Reaffirm Commitment to Data Free Flows with Trust, India Observes on the Sidelines

First proposed by Japan during its run as G20 president in 2019, “Data free flows with trust” was rejected by India back then.


We missed this earlier: Seven of the world’s top powers reaffirmed their intent to promote free flows of data across the globe at the recent G7 Digital and Tech Ministers meeting in Japan.

“In particular, recognising the critical role of data, as an enabler of economic growth, development and social well-being, we advance international policy discussions to harness the full potential of cross-border data flows under the banner of Data Free Flow with Trust (DFFT).” — G7 Digital and Tech Ministers’ Ministerial Declaration, dated April 30th, 2023.

Representatives from India, Indonesia, and Ukraine also sat at the discussion table, along with the United Nations, World Bank Group, and International Telecommunication Union, among others.

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Why it matters: “Data free flows with trust” was first proposed by Japan during its run as G20 president in 2019. In short, it refers to a “collective term for the global governance processes needed to unleash the benefits of more open and trusted data flows”. At the time, India had flat out rejected signing up to Japan’s proposal, with the then Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal tellingly stating:

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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”.

Translation: India, in all likelihood, wants more control over how the data of its citizens travel across the world. This makes it easier for the government to access citizen data once it crosses borders, and use it for various types of processing. Back at home, this desire has largely manifested through ‘data localisation’ policy planks—where draft data protection laws have mandated that copies of data be stored in India before they’re transmitted globally. The government has often had to remix these provisions, arguably following outcry from foreign governments over the added logistical burdens these proposals would impose—although they’re yet to fully disappear from India’s proposed data laws.

What else did the G7 commit to on cross-border data flows? The G7 discussed various measures to bring Japan’s long-term dream of data-free flows with trust to life:

  • Institutional arrangements for data free flows with trust: Data free flows with trust have a “cross-sectoral” nature which existing international organisations may not be able to adequately govern. To that end, the grouping agreed to operationalise a new institution that brings governments and other stakeholders to facilitate data free flows with trust of personal and non-personal data. One of these institutions is a soon-to-be-launced “Institutional Arrangement for Partnership” that will help develop principles-based, solutions-oriented, evidence-based, multi-stakeholder, and cross-sectoral cooperation between governments and stakeholders.
  • Addressing challenges: The grouping reaffirmed the need to address the security, data protection, privacy, and intellectual property concerns with data free flow with trust. In what might be of particular relevance to India’s data access concerns, the grouping noted that it welcomes the:

OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] Declaration on Government Access to Personal Data Held by Private Sector Entities as a critical tool to improve trust in cross-border data flows by identifying safeguards applicable when clarifying how national security and law enforcement agencies access personal data under existing legal frameworks.”

  • The OECD’s helping hand: Recognised the “added value of varied perspectives” in policymaking, the G7 welcomed the OECD’s report on data free flows with trust, which looks at issues of privacy and data protection requirements for cross-border data flows from a business perspective. Translation: the grouping is taking the OECD’s perspective on cross-border data flows seriously.

What’s the G7 again? Think of it like a mini G20—except this time, seven countries sharing “fundamental values such as freedom, democracy and human rights” come together to discuss and resolve various global issues. The member states exchanging these “candid views” are France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Canada. The summit was first held in 1975 against the backdrop of tumultuous macroeconomic policy changes over in the States, not to mention the world’s first oil crisis. Ever since, the summit takes place once a year—Japan’s the President for 2023, and is holding the G7 summit in Hiroshima.

Experts speculate that this year’s invited countries, India included, are there to bolster support for the grouping’s diplomatic stances. “Kishida [Japan’s Prime Minister] wants to get closer to the Global South because currently the G7 approach toward Russia – and China – is somewhat isolated…[Also] The Global South is important because their market share is growing and their GDP share (PPP, based on purchasing power parity) is more than 50 percent,” said experts speaking to Al Jazeera.

Tell me more about India’s chequered history with cross-border data flows at the G20? Notably, in an open letter last year, multiple civil society organisations criticised the discussions on data free flows with trust under India’s G20 Presidency.

The organisations argued that it was “inappropriate” to discuss the issue at the forum, especially when multiple developing countries had refused to buy into the term. As we’d reported back then, they argued that “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… Developing countries are particularly concerned about the expropriation of their own data’s economic value—a form of “digital colonization”.

The letter recommended moving beyond the G20 to develop a global data governance framework in solidarity with the Global South. “Ensure [that] the global digital and data governance and framework would not be governed in any international trade rules (WTO or bilateral and regional FTAs),” the letter added.

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