Forum Summary: Global Data Governance

In December 2016, Meridian 180 held a forum on Global Data Governance, led by Fleur Johns, Professor of Law at University of New South Wales, Australia, and Sung-in Jun, Professor of Economics at Hongik University. Prompted in part by recent scandals in the United States surrounding the hacking and release of email data, Johns and Jun urged Meridian 180 members to think widely about the issues and implications of how to govern data, as well as how data governs individuals and systems. The forum generated a wide exchange of ideas from a diverse group of economists, sociologists, computer scientists, anthropologists, and legal experts from Australia, China, Korea, the U.S. and Latin America. This summary provides a brief overview of insights provided by contributors.

What are the challenges facing consumers and citizens with respect to data?

Lyria Bennett Moses (law faculty, University of New South Wales), started the conversation by distinguishing between “data” and “the use of the data”, concluding that it is the use of the data that demands attention. Deborah Lupton, a digital sociologist, remarked on the importance of “data sense” among individuals -- the need to research how individuals understand their own personal data, how it is made, and what role it plays in their lives.

Linghan Zhang (Northeast Normal University School of Law) raised the issue of individuals’ differing levels of expertise about their data. Zhang said that even if a legal system can be devised to protect the control of data, the “rights over the control of data still depend on the controller’s own expertise and knowledge with regard to his or her data.”

The challenge of data “reusability” was brought up by several forum participants, particularly the idea of ownership when data is copied and resold by other interests. Zhang highlighted that “data cannot be exclusively owned when it can be repeatedly copied and used.”

Some forum participants noted broader threats that may underlie the whole data governance terrain. Leigh Bienen (Northwestern School of Law) likened the amount of data created through social media platforms to an “ungovernable monster.”

What are the system challenges in the face of data creation and data governance?

In their joint post, Xinli Zhu (Professor, Zhejiang University Guanghua Law School) and Xuyang Zhou (Ph.D. candidate, Zhejiang University Guanghua Law School) noted the intersection of governance, public and private law, regulation, and privacy preference when discussing data governance. They brought up the need for the role of the market with regards to “economic incentives such as financial supports, tax breaks, and market access,” to “trigger social supervision mechanisms” among corporations collecting or using data. The need for a properly designed “informed consent” framework is important, they argued, given the value of reusable personal data.

In their respective posts, Kai Jia (Tsinghua University) and Stephen Humphreys (London School of Economics) noted the blurring of the "real" and "digital" worlds, and the inherent challenges this creates for governance. Humphreys noted that, while difficult, "the work of reanchoring this proliferating universe of representation in the real world is arguably no different from the language games of fact-finding or evidence-gathering."

Jia categorized data into four distinct sources: genetic data (personal biological data); sensor data (collected from devices); behavioral data (transaction data, communication data); and government data or public information, noting that the wide range of data sources impacted the frameworks necessary for regulations. “How should we develop or reform the technology, philosophy and institutions of legal regulation,” Jia asked. Echoing Zhu and Zhou, Jia argued for innovative “incentive mechanisms” to guide regulation.

Before systems and structures are considered, Charlotte Epstein (University of Sydney) emphasized the need to look “upstream” at “the processes by which data was constructed as data in the first place.”

What tradeoffs are inherent with regards to data governance?

The economist Kyeong-Hoon Kang (Dongguk University) highlighted the conflict between personal data protection and competition policy when considering data governance. Fred Schneider, computer scientist at Cornell University, highlighted the tradeoff between encryption and security with “other values that governments deem important,” such as surveillance. As a core member of a conference at the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications working on the issue of artificial intelligence (AI), Susumu Hirano contributed the policymaker’s viewpoint with respect to developing guidelines regarding transparency and “traceability” of AI. He noted the need for a global determination of the meaning of transparency and a balance between “the appropriate level of transparency” and benefits to be produced by AI.

Forum participants in South Korea and Australia shared insights about current legislative efforts to regulate data pseudonymization in both countries. GiJin Yang (Chonbuk National University Law School) noted the current debate in South Korea around data pseudonymization, the “balanced point between data privacy protection and efficient data use”, and the need for a global standard for data privacy and usage. Bennett Moses noted that pseudonymization was also being discussed in Australia, and raised the issue of a “risk-based approach” to disclosure. Yang agreed that a risk-based approach was promising in that it allowed for a mix of both initiative and liability.

Anthropologist Jerome Whitington (NYU) urged the group to consider the challenge of safeguarding research data. He highlighted the importance of data for community organizing and suggested we ask more questions about “what data matters, who might use it, and whether or not it will be vulnerable.”

In her concluding post, Johns noted three main recurring themes:

  • “The changed roles in which citizens and consumers are being cast by the creation, movement, and use of data, such as they are involved in processes of decision and deal-making of which they may have little awareness or comprehension”;
  • “The changing repertoires of governments and corporations as they engage in new forms of competition and experiment with different 'mechanisms of governance' surrounding data”; and
  • "The questions of scale and the identification of points of intellectual, political, and ethical intervention in the 'data economy' or 'dataverse.'"

Many participants emphasized the need for global standards of governance with regards to data privacy and transparency. Further exploration and research on the subject of global data governance will be forthcoming from Meridian 180’s international working group as well as in future forum discussions.

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