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Civil Society Organisations Urge G20 to Stop Talks on Cross-Border Free Flow of Data

The Wire Staff
Dec 01, 2022
'The G20 is not an appropriate forum to discuss the issue of digital data governance where majority of G20 developing countries, like South Africa, India and Indonesia, in particular, are still refusing to buy into this new term.'

New Delhi: Multiple civil society organisations have urged the G20 countries to stop talks on the free flow of data, highlighting the fact that many of the developing countries within the group, including new G20 president India, are lagging behind when it comes to recognising the issue of digital data governance.

The G20 is an intergovernmental forum of 19 countries and the European Union.

“We, civil society organizations, urge the G20 Developing Countries to not continue the discussion on Data Free Flow with Trust (DFFT) to promote the free flow of Data at the G20 meeting, especially under the Presidency of India,” 12 organisations have written in a press release.

The G20 presidency – which rotates every year – is India’s for 2023.

The signatories are:

  1. Asia-Europe Peoples Forum (AEPF)
  2. Focus on the Global South
  3. Seattle to Brussels (S2B) Network
  4. Transnational Institute (TNI)
  5. Global Justice Now (GJN)
  6. IT for Change India
  7. Indonesia for Global Justice (IGJ)
  8. Sahita Institute (Hints)
  9. Fresh Eyes (UK)
  10. Pakistan Rabita Committee
  11. FIAN (Indonesia)
  12. Indonesian Human Rights for Social Justice (IHCS)

The Data Free Flow with Trust or DFFT initiative, the groups say, does little to quell developing countries’ concern that its agenda is of economic expropriation, and that it has little to do with privacy and security.

The G20 Bali Declaration, they say, is “still pushing the commitment of all G20 members to continue the discussion” on DFFT, despite there being no agreement between the member countries on pursuing this.

“The G20 is not an appropriate forum to discuss the issue of digital data governance where majority of G20 developing countries, like South Africa, India and Indonesia, in particular, are still refusing to buy into this new term.

“This is because their main issue with the original ‘free flow of data’ doctrine was not as much to do with privacy and security as it was about economic expropriation, given that data is the most valuable resource today. The new concept of DFFT did nothing to address this central concern of developing countries.”

Developing countries’ main problem with cross-border free flow of data comes from fears of digital colonisation, the statement notes, adding that DFFT will not guarantee economic growth for developing countries.

India last month proposed a new data privacy law that will allow companies to transfer some users’ data abroad, while giving the Union government powers to exempt state agencies from the law in the interests of national security.

Also read: Through Successive Attempts, the Data Protection Bill Is Now Its Own Caricature

The proposed law would be the latest regulation that could impact how tech giants such as Facebook and Google process and transfer data in India’s fast-growing digital market. It comes after the government, in August, withdrew a 2019 privacy bill that had alarmed companies by proposing stringent restrictions on cross-border data flows.

The latest privacy bill relaxed certain stringent norms on cross-border transfers proposed earlier, with the government saying it could specify countries to which entities managing data can transfer personal data of users.

Whoever controls data controls the digital domain too, the signatories of the letter, stress. Big technology companies, therefore, are keen to maintain their hold on data.

“Data is the key resource in a digital society and economy. Most of the data value is extracted by one or two big techs superpowers who control most of the global digital platforms and infrastructure. The big problem is, today’s big techs companies are benefiting greatly from the expansion of economic digitisation with controlling the data in the global world. The top of the list was the right to Control Data, and who controls data essentially can dominate the digital domain. And, so they wanted absolute rights to control the data generated in the business. 

“The big tech companies have been lobbying the states to regulate the free flow of data so they can keep the data monopoly. Trade rules are being used to leverage this influence as a vehicle for expanding the big techs power and influence. We are increasingly seeing the incorporation of ‘digital chapters’ in trade agreements and negotiating E-commerce Agreement at the WTO

Earlier this year, WTO members reached a provisional deal to extend a moratorium on applying duties to electronic transmissions until the next ministerial meeting, likely to be in 2023, Reuters had reported. The moratorium has exempted data flows from cross-border tariffs since 1998.

‘Need to go beyond trade’

“We support the call by the UNCTAD for developing a ‘global data governance framework’ that addresses both non-economic and economic aspects of data,” the civil society organisations say.

The UNCTAD’s 2021 Digital Economy Report states that as data and cross-border data flows become increasingly prominent in the global economy, there is an urgent need to properly regulate them at the international level. “Thus, when addressing how to regulate cross-border data flows, the international community will need to go beyond trade and consider them in a holistic manner,” they observe.

The statement also strongly demands that the developing G20 countries take concrete action beyond the G20 forum to “develop a just global digital and data governance and framework based on south-south solidarity principles.”

Such action should be taken by an independent and representative multilateral mechanism, backed by an international treaty (or human rights treaty), the groups urge. It should also ensure that global digital and data governance and its framework would not be governed by any international trade rules – either WTO or bilateral and regional Free Trade Agreements.

The groups say that cross-border data flows should be based on a “comprehensive rights-based approach” that includes the civil and political, social and economic, and the right to development branches of human rights.

“Economic data rights of individuals, communities and workers are important to ensure equity and justice, nationally and globally. It is important that cross-border data flows are based on social and economic justice, and observe principles like fairness and justice, transparency, lawfulness, and reciprocity in relation to data-related benefits. Therefore, we need to develop a just global digital and data governance framework with an independent, representative,” the groups say.

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