Why Data Needs Global Governance

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We quickly click on the terms and conditions of apps, with little consideration for how our data will be held against us. We all realise our data is being sliced and diced by the companies we know. But there are even more companies we don’t know, that we never hear of. They want it this way. To lurk in the shadows, feasting quietly, ravenous beasts, never satiated.

Data is intangible to most of us. Ethereal, wafting about in the digital aether. Some say data is the new oil. It is not. Oil is finite. Data is not. But data is the resource that fuels our digital age. Yet we govern it so poorly. We don’t understand how it is used in both good and bad ways.

We need data to thrive in the digital age. Data is necessary to advance AI, genetic engineering, robotics and more. For citizens, the tension lies between how much of our personal data is actually needed, ensuring data is not overly regulated so that innovation can continue and protecting citizens rights.

All this data flows between nations and industries. It is a highly profitable cash flow. It is completely unregulated and ungoverned at a global scale. Here and there are patches of privacy laws, only the EU has been the most progressive. America has no federal privacy or data laws. Canada’s PIPEDA law is beyond ancient in digital terms, a new law is languishing in the Senate.

The last decade has ushered in terms like surveillance capitalism, infonomics. A flood of credit monitoring apps that, like insurance companies selling fear as their pitch, gives us anxiety inducing credit scores. The scores often mean little or nothing. Fear, sex and anxiety sell. Dopamine, informed by data, keeps us glued to our devices.

Not governing data effectively is as dangerous as letting AI run wild.

Data flows between countries largely unhindered. A torrent of billions upon billions of bits and bytes daily. Untaxed, unregulated, uncontrolled. Your data, our data. It feeds the hungry algorithms that remain mysterious and cloaked under the veil of intellectual property. Much of the time, even the creators of those algorithms don’t know how they work. Algorithms run loose like Minions unleashed, unfettered and often misunderstood and rarely funny.

OpenAI and a raft of tech startups are feeding at the overflowing trough of data on the open internet. Text, videos and images. An engine of insatiable appetite. It is a digital free for all. A resource haul more valuable than the rare earth minerals that enable our devices.

The access to these riches is being fiercely defended by Tech Giants and smaller technology companies. Through lobbying directly, and indirectly through a confusing web of non-profit industry organisations. They’re spending hundreds of millions, stalling, blocking or outright killing off bills and proposed regulations. The data must flow.

Then there’s the rise of Artificial Intelligence, specifically Generative AI that powers tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney that use Large Language Models (LLM). There is no data hungrier digital beast than AI. To use the word large in LLMs is an understatement. It might better be called massive. Any or all tweets you’ve tweeted, blog posts you’ve written, are likely helping train those tools. We gleefully feed it too. Like we feed ducks in a pond. Except data doesn’t make cute quacking sounds, just anxiety inducing notifications on our screens. Screens that are everywhere.

And like gloating, delirious parents training a child, we train AI systems. Sometimes, we even pay for the privilege of training an AI, like OPenAI and Microsoft365 licenses. Everything we do with AI tools is helping train them.

We’re not in a hype cycle for AI, we’re now in a hysteria cycle and venture capital is in a feeding frenzy. Energising all this is data. Yours, mine and everyone else’s. We are feeding the beasts and they’re ravenous. They are feral digital engines, a growling, vicious, fire breathing dragon should you come near their hoard of data.

The Tech Giants and many smaller companies that leverage data claim that they cannot operate without it. This is true. The issue is how, when, where and why they use it. They do not always need it in the way they claim.

The simple truth is that Google, Facebook, TikTok, Snap, Twitter and the like, do not need to use personal data the way they do. A point of proof is the privacy driven search engine DuckDuckGo. They too, use an advertising model, but ads are served up based on search terms, not deeply analysing what engines like Google and Bing do with your personal data.

When these Tech Giants get your data, it is fed to the starving algorithms and manipulated by behavioural psychology and economics. The wizards behind the curtain, nudging us, pushing on our dopamine receptors and goading us with the fear of missing out.

Some worry about monsters under the bed, when it is glowing in our hand in the dark, denying us sleep and giving fodder to nightmares.

There’s a reason ad blockers are growing in popularity and people are increasingly using VPNs. It’s not just for security, it’s also to protect personal data.

People, as citizens and consumers, are growing increasingly aware of how they’re being manipulated. They’re becoming disillusioned and growing tired of being the product. Slowly, the general public is catching on to how their data is being used.

Governments, both politicians and their bureaucracies too, are facing citizens who are beginning to counter the lobbyists. As citizen anger grows, at some point, in a democracy at least, the voice of the voters outweighs the dollars of the lobbyists.

And governments are also starting to realise that they too, are being left out of the benefits of the riches of our data. An issue digital technology companies work to keep out of politicians minds, twisting our very data to sway them. But governments are aware and they’ve started to look at how to tax data, to get their cut.

More regulations and laws are needed to govern our data. In our digital age, data is a necessary and vital part of digital technology companies ability to function and to innovate. Laws that are enacted as a knee-jerk reaction to keep voters happy are often flawed and end up struck down in courts when challenged. Overly burdensome regulations can stifle innovation as well as healthy competition.

Data laws must also consider a global society and geopolitics. The Chinese governments’ access to the data of citizens in democracies that they fundamentally oppose, is a structural risk to our democracies.

Addressing how to make data laws and regulations better requires a whole-of-society approach. One that engages citizens, non-profits that represent social groups as well as industry, governments. Simply tasking government with such a complex issue is unfair and unreasonable. It would be disastrous.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Foresight Analyst | Innovation Architect | Celt