On Friday 1 July 2022, the Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS), in partnership with the Institute for the Future of Knowledge (IFK) at the University of Johannesburg and the UJ Library, hosted a webinar on ‘Data Sovereignty’.
The webinar was facilitated by Ms Goitseone Maswabi, Research and Media Coordinator of the CACS. Participants were welcomed by Prof David Monyae, Director of the CACS, and Prof Arthur Mutambara, Director of the IFK.
The discussants were Prof Everisto Benyera, Professor of African Politics, University of South Africa; Adv Megan Kathure, Attorney and Advocate of the High Court of Kenya, specialising in Technology, Cybersecurity and International Trade Practice; and Dr John Ostrowick, Head of Strategy for a political organisation, and Chief Information Officer for a South African government department.
A question and answer session followed.
In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping predicted that ‘the vast ocean of data, just like oil resources during industrialization, contains immense productive power and opportunities. Whoever controls big data technologies will control the resources for development and have the upper hand.’ Since then, data has indeed become the world’s most valuable resource. This is most evident from the presence of tech companies in the world’s top 10 most valuable companies. Big tech companies, mostly domiciled in the US and to a lesser extent China, whose business models revolve around data, take up six spots in the top 10, with a combined market value of $7,6 trillion.
Besides economic wealth, access to and control of data also accrues significant military advantages, soft power, and governance capabilities. Data is essential in driving emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and sensors, among others, that have revolutionised the production of goods and services.
However, the global data economy is not without its problems. Its politics are characterised by acute power asymmetries, its economics are rigged and riddled with inequities, and its ethics stretch the limits of what is morally acceptable. For example, micro-targeting data subjects has raised ethical questions about surveillance capitalism, algorithmic profiling, privacy, and data monopolies.
The dominance of a few big tech companies in the data economy which possess enormous economic and political power has raised concerns of data colonialism especially in the Global South. These companies’ control and ownership of hardware and software infrastructure threaten the strategic autonomy of many countries around the world who depend on their technology.
As such, data sovereignty, the bid by states and governments for more regulatory control of data generated in their territories, has become a global buzzword. Some 128 countries have adopted laws addressing the protection of data privacy and regulation of cross-border data flows, and 20 more are drafting similar legislation. Thee laws are meant to protect the data rights of their citizens and their countries’ critical information infrastructure.
Against this background, this webinar discussed the issue of data sovereignty, delving into its economic, cultural and geopolitical dimensions, and address questions about the viability of data sovereignty from both theoretical and practical standpoints, with a view to understanding its implications for the developing world, with a focus on Africa.