Rohinton P Medhora

From contact-tracing apps to telemedicine, digital health innovations that can help tackle coronavirus have been adopted swiftly during the pandemic. Lagging far behind, however, are any investigations of their reliability and the implications for privacy and human rights.

In the wake of this surge in “techno-solutionism”, the world needs a new era of data diplomacy to catch up.

Big data holds great promise in improving health outcomes. But it requires norms and standards to govern collection, storage and use, for which there is no global consensus. 

The world broadly comprises four data zones — China, the US, the EU and the remainder. The state-centric China zone, where individuals have no control over their personal data, is often portrayed as the poster child of the long-threatened Orwellian society.

A woman scans a QR code of a local app to track personal data for the Covid-19 containment in Zouping in east China’s Shandong province © Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Yet the corporation-centric US zone is also disempowering. The “consent” that users provide to companies is meaningless. Most consumers do not read the endless pages of fine print before “agreeing”, while not consenting means opting out of the digital world and is seldom useful.

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation goes furthest in entrenching the rights of EU citizens to safeguard their privacy and provide a measure of control over personal data.

But it is not without drawbacks. Costs of compliance are high, with small and medium-sized companies facing a disproportionately large bill that strengthens the large companies that the regulation was designed to rein in. There are also varying interpretations of the rules by different national data protection authorities.

The rest of the world does not have the capacity to create meaningful data governance. Governments are either de facto observers of others’ rules or stumble along with a non-regime. One-fifth of countries have no data protection and privacy legislation, according to figures from Unctad, the UN’s trade and development agency.

Global diplomacy is needed to bring some harmony in norms and practices between these four zones, but the task is not easy. Data straddles our prosperity, health, commerce, quality of democracy, security and safety. 

A starting point could be a technology charter of principles, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It may not be fully applied everywhere, but it could serve as a beacon of hope — particularly for citizens in countries with oppressive regimes — and could guide the drafting of national and subnational legislation.

A second focus should be the equitable taxation of multinational digital platforms that use canny accounting practices to cut their tax bill. While the largest share of users — and one that is growing fast — are in populous poorer parts of the world, the value created from their data goes to richer countries.

This imbalance, coupled with widespread use of tax havens by multinational technology companies, is exacerbating government funding gaps already under pressure because of the pandemic.

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A third priority is to revisit statistics. Just as the UN System of National Accounts was introduced in the 1950s, today we need a set of universally accepted definitions and practices to categorise data.

That would allow us to measure and understand the nature of the new data-driven economy. National statistical agencies must be strengthened to gather information and to act as stewards of ever greater quantities of personal data.

Finally, just as the financial crisis of 2007-08 led to the creation of the Financial Stability Forum (a global panel of regulators now called the Financial Stability Board), the Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity to galvanise action through a digital stability board.

Members could produce a set of global public goals for data, developing model standards, regulations and policies, sharing best practices and monitoring risks.

One output could be ways to oversee personal information such as data trusts — legal entities that appoint stewards to manage individuals’ data for a designated purpose such as health research, much as retirement savings accounts operate. Another could be regular reports on risks and vulnerabilities in the global data infrastructure.

Governance structures should not be simply restrictive but should also encourage valuable digital innovation that produces important benefits ethically and equitably. Data pools managed in the public interest, for instance, would serve as a resource for scientific advancement for public and private teams around the world.

Crafting a multilateral consensus on something as amorphous and far-reaching as data is a daunting task. Understandably, governments are focusing on short-term health and economic crisis management at the moment.

However, the response to coronavirus has highlighted larger challenges of governance in the digital era. There is a risk that urgent priorities will crowd out a longer-term focus on the need for a well-run data-driven world.

But the costs of neglect in continued erosions of privacy and harm to prosperity and openness would be a heavy price to pay.

The writer is president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a member of the Lancet-FT Commission on Governing Health Futures

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