Internet Governance Discussions – Opening a 6G Cash Register?

December 5, 2022

Written by Alex Lawrence

Last week the United Nations’ 17th Internet Governance Forum took place in Ethiopia.

While the 6G telecoms environment is being re-imagined by governments to fit more with societal needs, so is the internet. The talks were focussed on ways to remedy major problems with today’s internet.

Out of five major themes addressed, three were strongly related to the societal demands governments are also placing on telecoms developers of 6G. Those were “Connecting All People and Safeguarding Human Rights”, “Governing Data and Protecting Privacy”, and “Enabling Safety, Security and Accountability”.

While much of this sounds at best like something for politicians and at worst like so much empty talk, there are some interesting opportunities available for those who can step in with solutions. Players in both internet and telecoms have the scope do exactly that, influencing the future of lives online as well as building whole new areas of business.  

Trading Data

To dig into one example, the question of data governance and data self-determination – the right of individuals to have a say in their data’s usage – seems a long way from technology and business solutions. Bear with us though.

Marilia Maciel, Head of Digital Commerce and Internet Policy at DiploFoundation was quick to point out the increasing significance of data flows for supporting trade, both nationally and internationally. As a result, over the past decade data governance has moved “from protecting data as intellectual property and excluding others from using it, towards promoting the safe, transparent, trustworthy mechanisms for data sharing.”

This is in many ways a useful and positive thing, but data sharing – the fundamental element of the internet and increasingly of telecoms – is critical and the mechanisms supporting at are currently quite ad-hoc.

“International data governance is being done by plurilateral trade agreements,” Maciel explained. “They establish a general principle between members to encourage free flows of data, but defining exceptions as specifically as possible, such as for national security.”

These trade agreements are being performed by governments through for a such as the WTO [World Trade Organisation]. However, there are unsurprisingly oddities as a result of treating data as a commodity, as Maciel outlined.

  •  Agreements don’t take into account the use of data within industrial policies or data that may need to be protected for development considerations.
  • Much data is not related to trade in any meaningful way; for example, much of the IoT data produced by oil fields or agricultural fields is to do with resource management. What does trade have to do with a heart monitor’s data or backing up a school’s records? So trade rules are simply not relevant to a good deal of data.
  • Trade negotiations are also not about human rights, privacy, freedom of expression or freedom from discrimination, so these are not taken into account in how data is managed.

Small wonder, then, that there is a misalignment between how people would like to be treated, or have their data treated, and what actually happens in practice.

Moreover, trade is not a neutral element. As Pari Esfandiari, Co-founder & President of the Global TechnoPolitics Forum pointed out, “As governments became aware of the value of data it became a geopolitical concept… inevitably its governance runs into ideological differences.”

Esfandiari gave the example of ‘privacy’. The concept has different emphases in China, the USA and Europe. The USA typically prioritises freedom of speech, China national stability, and the EU personal privacy.

When put into a trade context, the parties involved and the desired outcome needs to be taken into account. It’s not going to feature elements such as privacy in the same way as a discussion would I other contexts.

“In a trade conversation, when they discuss privacy they will try come up with a solution that will help trade the most because their end-goal is to promote trade liberalisation, and that will almost inevitably be a less protective solution than in a human rights discussion,” Maciel noted.

Problems in Search of Answers; A New Road to Riches?

For many of us who wondered how and why data sharing was managed, this is something of a surprise. It may help explain what enables and underlies the famous quotation “If you’re not paying for a product, you are the product” and the cynicism many of us feel about the online arena.

What alternatives exist, then, to rebalance the different priorities?

Roger Dubach, Assistant Director of International Law at the Swiss Foreign Ministry, has been wrestling with this, and the relationship of national privacy and data management laws with international regulations. To him, approaches for national codes of conduct should feed into an international discussion. He would like to see “A kind of ping-pong or back-and-forth between national and international discussion.”

“The thing which is lacking…is now ‘where could we have those discussions?’”

At present there is no appropriate environment for these. Indeed, it’s not even clear who should be involved. While Maciel proposed in the first instance a branch of the United Nations should host these conversations, Esfandiari emphasised that this puts governments – and the same people who are managing WTO conversations currently – in the driving seat without oversight or input from other stakeholders.

“Multi-stakeholder actions are the solution,” Esfandiari emphasised. “There’s a need to incorporate other actors into discussions and negotiations… the space remains dominated by governments and we see little involvement from other actors,” such as NGOs, industries affected by the regulation, or consumer groups.

Bertrand La Chappelle, Chief Vision Officer at the Datasphere Initiative, has a rather different approach, however.

He pointed out that there are many environments where a variety of stakeholders share information, whether that’s within a social media environment, an enterprise, or between companies in a value chain. These all form different kinds of, for want of a better term, ‘data community’ where there are usually expectations or concrete codes of behaviour for how privacy is managed or how data is shared within the community.

La Chappelle suggests that different data communities should set very explicit charters of what can or can’t be done with different data types, not only within the community but beyond it.

“There is a need to develop something inspired by creative commons concept,” He proposed. “Can we implement licenses that are machine-operable to allow communities to exchange data in a structured manner in a trusted environment, and which would lower the barriers to data exchange as much as possible while respecting each data community’s charter of rights and protections?”

This, he noted, would then balance the ability of people to determine what happens to their data with the opportunity to maximise its utility.

It would, of course, necessitate good tracking of what happens to data to ensure that the charters are being followed; but that would also open up the possibility for people and companies to track where else their data is being used and how, offering a much clearer sense of the value inherent in different data types and opening up the possibility for those data sources to negotiate benefits in return for its use.

This technology does not exist today, as Maciel noted, “The first gap is we need to understand where data is flowing from, where it’s flowing to and what kind of data it is.”

To those of us who are used to hearing of data as ‘the new oil’ it may be difficult to believe that there are such gaping holes in the fundamentals of the global ecosystem. However, it can be likened to many industries where pioneers have essentially made up an industry out of nothing and only later had a system formalised. To take the ‘old oil’ industry, for example, I doubt the early pioneers could have dreamt of the complexity inherent in the global petrochemical industry, with specialists in extraction, transportation, processing, refining, storage; having the ownership of tankers’ cargoes changing hands dozens of times during a single voyage; and more.

We stand at the brink of a similar transformation in the data environment. As telecoms, cloud and internet converge, increasingly providers can explore how to play a role in nascent global data industries.

Recorded sessions from the Internet Governance Forum are available on Youtube.

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