14 January

The 3 Directions of Data

DATA: To Be Protected, Controlled, Or Commercialised?
3 major economies are steering the world in 3 opposing directions.
Governments in the US, Europe and China handle and regulate data very differently – and this is a major headache for businesses with customers, clients, employees, and/or vendors dispersed around the world.
Putting it rather simplistically:
China sees data as something to be controlled, an economic and political advantage that has to be contained within the country.
Europe sees data as something that needs to be regulated and protected, such as we’ve notably seen in 2018 with the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
And the U.S. has traditionally seen data as something to be commercialised. But what it used to regard as a huge playing field for its tech giants is suddenly being narrowed by Chinese and European data requirements.
Every business handles data. And in order to stay in business, they must accommodate to the multi requirements of wherever they operate – Apple, for example, has had to set up a data centre in China to store Chinese customers’ personal information within the nation’s borders.
The Chinese government’s urge to control its citizens’ data might stem from historical and varied reasons –such as cultural and political mentalities from way before the digital age. But one outbreak of data concern took place in 2013, when Edward J. Snowden leaked documents about America’s vast surveillance program. For China, one of the major takeaways from that episode was “we’re overly reliant on American technology, over which we have very little control”, concluded scholar of Chinese tech policy Rogier Creemers, from Leiden University.
When the Chinese government recognised that their ability to control and monitor new technologies was falling behind, they’ve taken to drafting and putting regulations in place. Now, the Chinese regulatory legal system on cyberspace is regarded as one of the most comprehensive in the world by experts such as Samm Sacks, Senior Fellow for the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).
Interestingly, Sacks points out, these Chinese regulations were inspired by Europe’s GDPR – which places European and Chinese data legislation on a much more level footing than American data law. And this means something for businesses: GDPR limits the amount of data that companies can transfer outside of the European Union, unless that data goes to a country that meets Europe’s standards.
Europe’s GDPR also lets people request their online data and restrict how businesses obtain and handle their information. This couldn’t be a sharper divergence from the US, where the tech industry thrives with little supervision and where consumer personal data is traded on a vast scale without their knowledge, let alone their consent.
This became clearer than ever in April 2017, when President Donald Trump signed a legislation that drove privacy activists mad – the bill officialised consumer data as ‘fair game’ for internet service providers (ISPs) in the US by freeing ISPs from rules that would have required them to get explicit consent before sharing or selling people’s web browsing history and other sensitive information.
What can we learn from this?
The three major economies are driving the world of data – and therefore, the world- in three different directions.
In the U.S., power and success means having choices. Consumer choices. But in digital terms, this has led to giving up on personal privacy. We are now starting to understand the ironic implications of this trade: our choices are increasingly manipulated by those companies which can most effectively extract and refine our personal data for ever more ‘personalised services’ that dictate what we consume in the digital world (from what advertisements we see on our browsers to what accounts we’re aware exist and recommended to follow on social media). And too much personalisation –not to mention the lack of control over our private information- puts that sought-after ’power’ in a different light altogether.
China has historically contrasted this approach that focuses on empowering individuals to one that monitors them for ‘the greater good’. “The absolute order that the Chinese government embodies is based on self-discipline and respecting norms on a huge scale, made possible by technology,” explains Arnaud Massonie, co-founder of data company Fifty-five.
China relies on mass surveillance tools, phone companies, big data technology and peer pressure to build a social credit history where anyone can be essentially spied upon, at any time, without their consent. Privacy and freedom are entirely out of the picture here by European standards.
In Europe, the focus is back on empowering citizens, but contrasting also with the U.S., European regulations aim to put personal data protection even above the interests of businesses and institutions.
These are only three oceans of possibilities and implications when it comes to data, and which ocean you must navigate depends largely on where you’re born, on what you choose to consume, and on the nature of your business. Must we really choose between freedom and privacy? Who’s to judge the fairness of data nationalisation? How valuable is personal privacy?
Only this much is universally true: data is fundamental to powering the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is the oil of the 21st Century. And addressing its problems is both the challenge and the opportunity we all share, starting now.
Written by Paula Magal. Follow CS4CA’s Newsroom for more content like this & to learn more about our summits.

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