In an interview with the Datasphere Initiative, Markus Overdiek describes currently prevalent EU perspectives on data governance. These perspectives, together with global injustices in cross-border data flows, show the dire need for an ecosystem that fosters conclusive global data governance.

What are the main trends and priorities regarding data governance in Europe today?

The term “data governance” is used in different contexts; depending on the context, its meaning can differ substantially. Data governance is not only an important topic for most organizations either from a corporate, governmental, or civil society perspective. It is also of increasing concern from an international politics perspective.

In this context, there are at least a handful of regulations that are to different degrees relevant for data governance. Those are now in the process of finalization and then adopted by the legislative institutions of the EU, e.g.:

These legislations and legislative proposals will become active in the upcoming months and years – and thus, will shape (digital) Europe. Due to tensions in international relations with the US and China, supply-chain issues with respect to the corona pandemic, and Russia’s war in Ukraine, it is now a policy priority for the European Union to become more independent regarding its digital infrastructure and its digital markets.

Also, the EU aims to become a worldwide trailblazer for a more human-centric and value-based approach to digitization. Particularly, sovereignty and human-centricity are currently two key aspects of data governance from the policy perspective.

What are the main challenges for Europe and stakeholders engaging in Europe?

I see two core issues that pose challenges related to regional sovereignty and the need for a human-centric approach.

  • Sovereignty: Our geopolitical environment is currently loaded with a lot of uncertainty. The EU responds to this uncertain environment with policy measures that aim to strengthen independence in digital infrastructures and facilitate the dissemination of European companies that are based on amplifying the establishment of European-based companies with digital and data-driven business models.
  • Human-centricity: Coming from another perspective, data use needs to be beneficial to us all. But corporate undertakings are dominant, and oftentimes, they only have unilateral profiteers. It is therefore necessary that the diverse engagement of civil society actors and researchers are better facilitated by European institutions. Otherwise, data usage will only benefit the few, not the many.

Are there any (emerging) barriers to data sharing that impact international cooperation and trade with other countries and regions?

There is no one size fits all solution for data sharing. Depending on the application case, different approaches are worth considering: Open Data, Data Trusts, Data Commons, Data Spaces, and Data Markets – just to name the most well-known. However, these theoretical frameworks sometimes still miss the link to real-world practice – and this real-world link is still a barrier to a secure exchange of data.

Besides finding the best fitting models to share data, political negotiations will show how freely data can be exchanged. For example, there are currently discussions within the WTO about a permanent tariff ban on digital goods. While some countries are strongly in favor, others neglect this initiative.

Anyway, (small) tariffs on digital goods would not be a huge barrier to data sharing. If political disagreement about digital goods prevails, it could also impact international cooperation in this matter negatively.

Can you provide an example of good practice (normative, technical, operational) related to data governance?

More initiatives exist that promote open data as a model to share non-personal data. Especially on the city-level, a lot is happening: More and more data in relation to aspects such as waste management, air quality, or transportation modes are becoming publicly available.

Another example is provided by the city of Barcelona, which implemented a data commons model. An overview of many of these kinds of good practices for Europe is available on Europe’s Data Portal.

However, there is still room for improvement when it comes to the explicit design of different data-sharing models. For instance, using a PDF file to publish data can only be the minimum effort. Linked open data in the context of open data is on the other end of the spectrum and something to aim for when working towards good open data practices.

What would be your key recommendations for the stakeholders in the data governance ecosystem (governments, private sector, civil society)?

When we talk about data, we are also talking about power structures: Oftentimes, some own many data, while many own some data – and those with economic power are mostly those who have a lot of data at their disposal. This is an issue because data are not neutral, and their careless use can contribute to the maintenance of prevailing societal injustices.

When key stakeholders in the data governance ecosystem conduct their actions and initiatives, they should always identify and have in mind the current power structures and the nascent ones.

What is the Datasphere that you hope to see? 

On a political macro-level, let us work towards a data governance ecosystem that tackles existing inequalities by taking into account the perspective of the unfavoured side of the balance of power: This would imply taking the perspective of individuals rather than corporations, the perspective of developing countries rather than developed countries, and finally a common-good perspective rather than a market perspective.

About the author

Markus Overdiek works for the “Europe’s Future” program at the Bertelsmann Stiftung. Previously, he worked for the Bertelsmann Stiftung on the projects “Ethics of Algorithms” and “Global Economic Dynamics”. He has a focus in economics, data science, digitization, and European affairs.

This interview was first published as part of the Europe’s Dialogue series from the Datasphere Initiative.

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