IGF 2021 Open Forum #12 Digital Selfdetermination: Next Steps

Tuesday, 7th December, 2021 (12:45 UTC) - Tuesday, 7th December, 2021 (13:45 UTC)
Conference Room 8

Data governance and trust, globally and locally: What is needed to ensure that existing and future national and international data governance frameworks are effective in mandating the responsible and trustworthy use of data, with respect for privacy and other human rights?
Data transfers, trade, cooperation and trust: What is the role of local and international norms and principles in facilitating trustworthy international data transfers for trade and cooperation?

Round Table - U-shape - 60 Min


The internet and digital applications are already making our lives easier. We use digital services and products all the time: in our work, leisure activities and communication with each other. The result is a proliferation of data in many areas of our lives. This data is essential to the digital advances and efficiencies we have come to expect in the private and public sphere. However, the continuous collection and analysis of data in so many areas of our lives is also a source of new challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the process of digital transformation and added urgency for Governments to respond. A key challenge is how to govern and harness the surge in digital data for the global good. There is rising concern that our current data economy is deepening existing power and data imbalances – both on a national and international level. In response to that there has been a growing call for new data governance mechanisms.

In this Open Forum we will discuss different approaches and contributions to new governance models, from Switzerland’s multi-level approach to digital self-determination, UNCTAD’s focus on cross-border data flows, Nydia Remolina from the Singapore Management University and her perspective on digital self-determination beyond the European perspective, and a civil society viewpoint from the Association for Progressive Communications (APC)’s Gayatri Khandhadai.


  • Government of Switzerland
  • Swiss Foreign Affairs Department
  • Federal Office of Communications
  • Ambassador Roger Dubach, Deputy Director, Directorate of International Law, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs
  • Ambassador Thomas Schneider, Head of International Relations, Swiss Federal Office of Communications
  • Torbjörn Fredriksson, Head E-Commerce and Digital Economy Branch, UNCTAD
  • Nydia Remolina, Research Associate AI and Data Governance, Singapore Management University
  • Gayatri  Khandhadai, Asia Policy Regional Coordinator, Association for Progressive Communications (APC)
Onsite Moderator

Andrin Eichin, Federal Office of Communications

Online Moderator

Alice Weiss, Federal Office of Communications


Sandra Birrer, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs

Key Takeaways (* deadline 2 hours after session)

People increasingly feel that someone else is in control of their data. There is a need to have more choices and greater control over data. Digital self-determination can provide the necessary agency. Better control is also needed where data is fundamental for socially relevant systems. The increasing concentration of data with few actors creates risks and dependencies. This is why international data governance is urgently needed.

Call to Action (* deadline 2 hours after session)

Multistakeholder collaboration on data issues is important and needs to be intensified. In addition, discussions on data governance need to be lifted to the policy level and trustworthy data spaces have to be developed. Conversations on digital self-determination should also be linked to sustainability. Successful experiences like the creation of an intergovernmental panel on climate change should serve as inspiration for data governance.

Session Report (* deadline 26 October) - click on the ? symbol for instructions

The Open Forum on Digital Self Determination focused on the question How to realize the use and reuse of data in order to spur innovation despite current skepticism and barriers such as the centralization of data? The discussion centered the concept of digital self determination as a new approach that offers solutions in the realm of international data governance. The panel was represented by the two initiators of the Swiss concept of digital self determination, Ambassador Roger Dubach (Deputy Director, Directorate of International Law, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs) and Ambassador Thomas Schneider (Head of International Relations, Swiss Federal Office of Communications). Torbjörn Fredriksson (Head E-Commerce and Digital Economy Branch, UNCTAD), Nydia Remolina, (Research Associate AI and Data Governance, SMU) and Gayatri Khandhadai (Asia Policy Regional Coordinator, Association for Progressive Communication) were also on the panel.

Ambassadors Roger Dubach and Thomas Schneider introduced the concept and laid out its individual and collective components. In terms of the individual component, the key lies in the empowerment of individuals so that they do not remain passive users but become proactive co-creators of the digital environment. Knowledge, freedom of choice and the ability to act were highlighted as inalienable conditions for making digital self determination a reality for individuals. The individual component was illustrated on the Swiss Electronic Patient Record, which will allow full data control by the individual and easier information and knowledge transfer among health professionals. The collective component of digital self determination in turn focuses on the impacts of the digital transformation on society as a whole. In this context, the risks and potentials of the private sector’s push into the public service sphere were highlighted and the idea of integrating all mobility services (private and public) in Switzerland in one platform was introduced. Both the regulation of relevant (public) services and sectors as well as the creation of trustworthy data spaces that allow data sharing in a decentralized way were referred to as relevant factors for the collective component. In their view, digital self determination provides an approach to overcome current barriers to the data economy, such as the lack of data sharing and the lack of data control by individuals. It provides more agency of individuals and spurs economic and social benefits through the creation of new services.

Torbjörn Frederiksson highlighted the economic and non-economic implications of the data economy and the diversity in data handling perspectives. Due to the diverse  perspectives, the current data governance framework is highly fragmented. He pointed to the need to find interlinked dimensions and ways to bring data governance to a global level. The international collaboration across borders, stakeholders and disciplines was deemed important to build a common understanding of data.

The issue of fragmentation was also picked up by Nydia Remolina. She pointed to the different conceptual, theoretical and social perspectives on the theme of privacy among different stakeholders, jurisdictions and regions and their implications on data policy and data governance. She stressed that the data debate should be brought beyond the data protection regime of one jurisdiction and beyond the debate of personal data. Discussions should center on data empowerment and data access, the use and reuse of data, opinion data and how the outcome of AI models affects people. In her view, the value and potential of the concept of digital self determination lies exactly in making this stretch.

According to Gaya Khandhadai, the discussion on data governance necessitates a discussion on data as such. She introduced an approach that perceives data as an extension of the body. In her view, the digital and physical selves are intertwined and cannot be detached from each other and the society in which they exist. The focus should lie on individuals as the data subjects and their empowerment. There should be alternatives to the outdated model of opt in or opt out. In her view, a good data governance requires a human rights-based approach, different choice options, and the control of the users. Lastly, she stressed that new models such as digital self determination should not be a privilege of the rich countries, but rather should be looked at it in an inclusive manner.

The Swiss UN youth representative, Nikolas Kurek, drew attention to the importance of how we use the term “data” using statisticians and the public sector as examples. In his view, the challenge lies in aligning the terminology use. He was curious to know, which other stakeholders should be involved in the data discussion. The panelists agreed that all disciplines and stakeholders should be involved in the further data discussion, including states, civil society, the scientific community, and the private sector. Furthermore, they highlighted the importance of real time data and digital data as well as the challenges faced by statisticians as regards latter two categories.

A question raised by a participant on the relationship between digital self determination and national sovereignty and on the main barriers in achieving digital self determination further stimulated the discussion. Here, it was argued that digital sovereignty – understood as the autonomy of a state to shield its infrastructure from influence and disturbance from another country – is a pre-condition for the functioning of digital self determination: states need to have control over their infrastructure in order to guarantee the realization of digital self determination. Although the two concepts are clearly interlinked, the concept of digital self determination is broader.

To wrap up the session, it can be said that all panelists agreed that there is a need to provide more choices and greater control over data to individuals given their fundamental role in societal systems. The concept of digital self determination can provide the necessary agency. It is important to collaborate and intensify discussions with different stakeholders on data issues. In addition, discussions on data governance need to be lifted to the policy level and trustworthy data spaces need to be developed. Conversations on digital self determination should further be linked to the theme of sustainability. Successful experiences such as the creation of an intergovernmental panel on climate change could serve as an inspiration for data governance. It’s achievements in agreeing on a common language, depoliticizing the debate and identifying the main challenges were deemed relevant for data policy as well. All in all, it is about shaping the digital space and society in the present and the future.