Talking about data with Carolyn Nguyen, Director, Technology Policy, Microsoft

Published on
May 19, 2021

The Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network has released a Report “We Need to Talk About Data: Framing the Debate Around the Free Flow of Data and Data Sovereignty”. The Report presents concerns and perspectives around these seemingly polarizing policy concepts and offers recommendations on how to move forward. To unpack the key messages and explore the next steps I&JPN spoke to the Report’s contributors to ask how I&JPN can foster a collaborative discussion on how to organize our common Datasphere. 


Why do we need to talk about data?

As people, communities, organizations and governments increasingly engage with applications and with each other online, more and more data will be generated. How this data can, and should be used to realise a better world for everyone is an essential dialogue that would benefit from broad and diverse perspectives. With COVID-19, we already have vivid examples of beneficial uses of data - e.g., the sharing of data globally has accelerated our combined understanding of the virus and its spread, vaccine development, distribution and manufacturing. Data can also help us gain better insights into the challenges that we are facing - e.g., the extent of the divides in our world, including in connectivity and systemic injustices - and enabling us to develop more effective solutions. 

The pandemic has also made it apparent that our daily lives and the resiliency of our world depend on data flowing across national borders. In the past year, organizations of all sizes, across all sectors, all over the world, were able to continue operating by transitioning their operations to online-first or online-only, and people conducted their daily lives online whenever possible. Global data flows underpinned these transactions, including access to relevant information and services, enabling remote work, extending customer reach, sustaining global supply chains and business operations, and identifying potential security threats. Even small companies that operate in a single country would benefit from such flow in their business and market operations.

However, there is a lack of trust right now in the use of digital technologies. People are concerned about who can access and use their data; organizations are concerned about potential government access of their data; governments are concerned about other governments' access to their data stored in the cloud. Without more predictability and clarity on guidelines around global data flows, the pace of digital transformation will be slowed, impacting the well-being of people and society. This is a priority issue that needs to be addressed especially now - when resilient economic recovery is so important - absolutely no question about it. From a business perspective, this lack of trust, and furthermore the inconsistency in national regulations, has often led to businesses being caught in the middle. 

What is the most important key message from the I&JPN Report?

The report captures the multi-dimensionality of data, and makes clear the challenges this poses to traditional and silo approaches to its governance. The world around us has fundamentally changed. A holistic and whole-of-government approach to data is needed to fully realise its benefits and address its challenges. This will require us to take a couple of steps back to understand the overall data ecosystem and define its issues before we can work together to figure out what we should be doing with it. 

This I&JPN Report is a part of that first step, defining the data dimensions and establishing a common foundation that can bring stakeholders with broad and diverse experiences and insights together for a substantive and nuanced discussion that can lead to the development of a more workable and holistic data governance framework. 

When considering data policy approaches, why should we be thinking about our “common Datasphere”?

We need a common language; we need to bring everyone along. Otherwise, it's not a conversation, it’s an echo chamber. We need visualizations of the interconnected world that are easy to understand, that can bring new people to the conversation - this Report is part of that capacity building. To design a better system we need everyone, and if we're not able to speak the same language and have a common understanding, it will be very difficult.

How can we foster a collaborative discussion moving forward?

It’s useful to consider that the quality of the solution depends on the quality of the question and the problem definition. Until we're able to come together to define the issues and ask the questions, it will be very difficult to come up with good solutions to addressing the policy challenges around data.