IGF 2020 WS #227 Data localisation in the times of COVID-19


Organizer 1: Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group
Organizer 2: Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group
Organizer 3: Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group

Speaker 1: Anita Gurumurthy, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group
Speaker 2: Venkatesh Hariharan, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group
Speaker 3: Ursula Jasper, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)


Round Table - U-shape - 60 Min

Policy Question(s)

What, if any, restrictions should be placed on cross-border transfers of COVID-19 related health data, and how can these be designed to ensure public policy goals are met without unduly affecting individual or community interests in such data?

The session will seek to address the challenges involved in enabling cross-border flows of health data (related to the COVID-19 pandemic). While data localisation norms are increasingly being considered by a number of countries in domestic policy instruments, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for global solutions and accord, particularly on issues that affect humanity as a whole. The session therefore presents a good opportunity to discuss the issue of how one may regulate cross-border data transfers in a specific scenario i.e. pertaining to COVID-19 related data, where there are clear benefits (enabling cross-country comparisons of data sets, developing global epidemiological models, etc.) as well as challenges (such as privacy, distribution of economic benefits, etc). Specifically, the session will attempt to shed light on the following issues: (a) To what extent are countries restricting cross-border data flows of COVID-19 related health data? What are the benefits and drawbacks of this? (b) What, if any steps are being taken to ensure protection of civil liberties and fair value sharing across the health data ecosystem? (c) Whether any governance principles or frameworks can be suggested to ensure public policy goals are met without unduly compromising individual or community interests?


GOAL 3: Good Health and Well-Being
GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
GOAL 10: Reduced Inequalities


While the issue of regulating cross-border data flows of data is not new, it has taken on greater importance over the last few years with a number of countries (particularly developing countries) seeking to introduce measures that limit the ability of individuals and businesses to freely transfer data to foreign jurisdictions. The issue is also increasingly the subject matter of international trade negotiations, in bilateral and multilateral fora. One area in which a number of countries implement restrictions on cross-border data transfers concerns health data, due to its perceived sensitivity. However, the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the importance of enabling cross-border flows of certain types of health data – to enable epidemiological and other scientific research, to enable countries to model for spread of the disease and examine possible interventions. While health data sharing across countries can help in developing responses to the pandemic, there continue to remain questions concerning privacy and surveillance, the levels of security that data may be subject to outside its ‘home’ jurisdiction including in terms of whether it can be appropriately anonymised or otherwise masked to remove personal identifiers, and importantly, how the benefits of analysis of such data can be made more equitable and widespread. Given that developing countries in particular may not have the skills or expertise needed to conduct appropriate analysis of pandemic related data (or to develop solutions thereon), they may often have to rely on foreign companies or multinationals. This raises critical issues concerning the fair distribution of the social and economic benefits that could flow from an analysis of pandemic related data, and is directly tied to issues of “ownership” and control over data (and the broader issues of “data colonialism”). In the circumstances, it becomes important to try and understand (a) how different jurisdictions are enabling or restricting cross-border flows of data related to the COVID-19 pandemic, (b) whether any basic principles can be forged, that enable privacy and economic rights of individuals (and communities) to be protected while at the same time allowing for cross-border data flows, and (c) the relevance in this regard of new technical models like federated or edge computing that allow data to stay close to its places of origin while just insights from such data travel for further centralised analysis. The session will attempt to bring together multi-disciplinary expert perspectives on these issues, in order to try and foster greater understanding of global health data ecosystem during the COVID-19 pandemic. The session will in particular seek to explore if and how cross-border data flows of health data can or should be permitted, and how the benefits of analysis of such data can be democratised.

Expected Outcomes

Debates on the implementation of free flow of data provisions or restrictions thereto are taking place domestically (for instance in privacy and data protection legislations in a number of countries) as well as at various international fora (under bilateral and multilateral agreements, under the WTO framework, etc.). One of the primary goals of this session will therefore be to build capacity for civil society to engage with these processes. The session will (a) expose the attendees to information on how cross-border transfers of health data can be used and/or exploited, for a variety of purposes (b) try and understand methods that could be used to ensure public policy outcomes (such as epidemiological research) can be met while protecting civil liberties and ensuring an appropriate distribution of economic value. This will ideally enable the creation of a community that can strategize and engage on the issue, with a view to continued knowledge-exchange and influencing government policy. This may take the form of an e-list or platform for information exchange on the issue.

The session will look to bring together people from different geographic regions and stakeholders to present perspectives on the issue of cross-border data flows relating to health data. We will kick off with expert comments from some of the designated speakers before opening up to all the participants present. We will encourage debate around each of the issues listed for discussion.

Relevance to Internet Governance: The issue of cross-border data flows is one that is increasingly being debated in Internet governance circles, not least due to possible effects on civil liberties and the need to ensure the Internet remains a global network. While many countries are increasingly pushing for restrictions on cross border data transfers, particularly of sensitive data sets such as health data, the current pandemic has only emphasised the need for global cooperation on these issues. At the same time, concerns related to civil liberties, and the equitable distribution of economic benefits must be addressed in order to foster greater global trust and cooperation. This session will therefore seek to address such issues, drawing on the experience of multidisciplinary experts.

Relevance to Theme: The session will address the issue of cross-border data flows pertaining to health data and governance frameworks that could be used to enhance such flows, without adversely affecting individual or community rights.

Online Participation


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