Why we need a World Data Organization. Now.

Why we need a World Data Organization. Now.

Data is reshaping the 21st century world order. China knows this; for years, China has put the development of advanced communications technology and control of data at the center of its plan to maintain social order as it opens its economy and expands its international influence. Where Western powers like the US were content to largely let technology companies police themselves, the Chinese government has promoted and enlisted its tech champions in its plans for national development. Until recently, these different approaches to data, technology, and the internet—one driven by the US private sector, the other by China's public sector—coexisted in a global marketplace.


But one consequence of the trade war between the US and China is Beijing realizing how vulnerable it remains to the constraints of the current system and its ongoing reliance on the US in key technology sectors. China no longer assumes its technology companies will have access to cutting-edge Western hardware, software, and intellectual property. Instead, China has decided it needs to become more self-sufficient, and it's bringing enormous resources to bear to do so.

China's decision to go it alone on tech is the single most impactful geopolitical decision made in decades; it also represents the greatest danger to globalization in the post-War era.

The "splinternet"—the threat of a permanent rift in the flow of information and technology between China and the West—looms larger each day. China has a strategy here; the West doesn't. Nearly 20 years into this new century, the world's democracies have yet to agree on a comprehensive, multilateral approach to technology to govern the use and flow of data, or to address attempts to hijack the open flow of information by criminals, terrorists, and autocrats.

To develop an effective strategy, the West needs two things. First, a group of objective, unbiased observers who can see where the digital world's development is headed. This would be the data equivalent of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which helps the world understand its current vulnerabilities to global warming. To figure out where we're going, we must first understand where we are.

Second, the West needs to establish a multilateral institution composed of like-minded allies whose main responsibility is to set norms and standards to govern the use of data and tech to best ensure that both encourage human ingenuity and enable prosperity—and that neither compromises freedom and human rights. Think of the World Trade Organization, founded to help facilitate trade, establish commercial norms, and adjudicate disputes… but for data.

Today, the world needs a World Data Organization to help coordinate disparate responses to looming digital threats and opportunities. A secretariat would be established to help member states create a universal set of digital norms that can be adopted by the group (with a particular focus on artificial intelligence, privacy, intellectual property, citizens' rights, and data) alongside an enforcement mechanism to help mediate any potential disagreements between parties.

It won't be easy. Although the United States and Europe share a common foundation of democratic values, they have very different views on issues such as data privacy and government surveillance. Europe has been moving to impose new controls and push back on the power of the large US tech firms that dominate social media, online search, e-commerce, and cloud computing—as well as those companies that are at the forefront of the technologies that will drive the economy of the future (think: driverless cars, advanced factory automation, and AI). The US, meanwhile, has been backing away from its traditional global leadership, while sowing doubts about its security commitments to its traditional European allies. Other countries like India may hesitate to join the West, preferring to remain non-aligned.

But imagine if the US, Europe, and other democratic allies such as Japan are able to find a way to bridge their differences and present a common democratic front on data norms and governance. The US remains the epicenter of the West's tech innovation. Europe will bring its expertise in tech regulation to the proceedings, and Japan will bring its tech talents and willingness to roll out innovative new technologies to society at large.

A WDO in this mold would act as a counter to the rising threat of a Chinese digital alternative. But it's also a long-term bid to get China to play ball with the West rather than to try to isolate a country already far too big to isolate. If Western countries can create a workable framework to govern digital matters and disputes (complete with a functioning secretariat and adjudication system), the hope is to entice China to join as the best means of reaching the West's consumer markets.

Again, a WDO is not just about China—it is also about uniting a West that is itself quickly fragmenting over digital issues. In recent years, Europe has shown a willingness to go its own way when it comes to monitoring and protecting their citizens' digital privacy with the rollout of its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Japan remains allied with the US, but not particularly deeply on tech issues.

The world's democracies need to compromise amongst themselves to develop a strong multilateral architecture that reflects their collective rules and values. Then, if others opt out of joining the WDO (like China, but also countries like Russia and Iran), at least the new "Berlin Wall of data" will include the whole developed world—and most of the global economy—on the right side.

The establishment of a WDO with clear rules and regulations is the best way to persuade China and others hostile to the West these days of the value of peaceful digital-age co-existence. It's also an ideal vehicle to unite Western powers in defense of Western values of individual liberty.

A blue graphic using 1's and 0's to form an image of roads leading into a city

Governments, civil society and industry are beginning to understand the value of data to society in much the same way they considered the importance of thoroughfares 200 years ago. Just as these roads ushered in a new era of physical infrastructure that helped society thrive then, today we are beginning to understand the need to invest in modern approaches to our data infrastructure that will enhance economic growth and innovation, support individual empowerment and protect us from harm. Just as our physical infrastructure of roads and highways needs to be used appropriately, maintained and protected, so does our data infrastructure.

To maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of our data use, we need privacy regulations to serve as our global rules of the road that preserve our ability to use and share data across borders, supported by innovative tools and solutions that protect privacy and empower individuals. As we reframe our focus to support data use, let’s examine the regulatory approaches that have been working, and develop new approaches where needed to enable the responsible use and sharing of data. To read more about Microsoft’s approach to protecting data infrastructure, visit Microsoft on the Issues.

Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, our parent company, has opened this year’s GZERO Summit with a provocative speech on the near future of international politics. Here are the highlights.

Are the United States and China now locked in a new form of Cold War? Their governments behave as if they are.

But Bremmer isn’t buying it. He’s not predicting that Washington and Beijing will become more cooperative with one another, but that both will be too preoccupied with historic challenges at home in coming years to wage a full-time international struggle.

In Washington, the main worry will be for America’s broken political system. US politics is becoming even more tribalized as TV and online media target politically like-minded consumers with hyperpartisan news coverage. Widening wealth inequality fuels the fire by separating white and non-white, urban and rural, and the more educated from the less educated. Deepening public mistrust of political institutions will fuel future fights over the legitimacy of US elections.

Beijing’s burden centers on how to extend decades of economic gains while moving away from a growth model that no longer works, as higher wages in China and more automation in factories elsewhere cut deeply into China’s manufacturing advantages. China is still a middle-income country. To reach the prosperity level of wealthy nations, it needs 6-7 percent growth for another 20 years.

But China must spend less in coming years to keep giant, deeply indebted companies afloat and more to care for the largest population of elderly people in history. And its leaders must accomplish this at a time when China’s people expect ever-rising levels of prosperity from their government.

The domestic distraction of US and Chinese leaders will create new opportunities for European, Japanese, Canadian, Indian and other political and business leaders to contribute toward international problem-solving. But other governments aren’t the only new players stepping into this power vacuum.

Technology companies are fast becoming important geopolitical actors. We’re entering a world in which economic winners and losers, election outcomes, and national security will depend on choices made by both governments and by the world’s big tech firms.

Bremmer calls this a “techno-polar moment.”

The idea is simple but transformative: Just as governments make the laws that determine what can happen in the physical world, tech companies have final authority in a digital world that’s becoming both more expansive and more immersive.

The biggest tech companies will establish sovereignty by defining the digital space and its boundaries, the algorithms that determine what happens within that space, and the “terms and conditions” that decide who gets to operate in this world.

For skeptics, Bremmer poses this question: Who will do more to influence the outcome of next year’s US midterm congressional elections: The president of the United States or the CEO of Meta? According to Bremmer, since the vote will be influenced by both real-world rules changes and the online flow of information, the answer isn’t obvious.

How will tech companies try to expand their power? Some will behave as “globalists” by trying to reach consumers and influence politics everywhere.

Others will act as “national champions” by aligning with individual governments and their goals.

Still, others will behave as “techno-utopians,” companies that expect historical forces and tech innovations to help them replace governments in important ways.

The relative success of these models over the next decade will decide how government and tech companies share power over the longer-term and whether democracy or autocracy will have the upper hand.

What’s to be done? “Think adaptation, not surrender,” says Bremmer. Steps can be taken to limit the sometimes negative influence of tech companies in the political lives of democracies. But just as climate change can be limited but not avoided, so we must understand and adapt to a world in which governments and tech companies compete for influence over our lives.

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How is China able to control their tech giants without suppressing innovation?

For Ian Bremmer, one important reason is that there's a big difference between Jack Ma questioning Chinese regulators and Elon Musk doing the same to the SEC.

"In the United States you've got fanboys if you do that; in China, they cut you down," Bremmer told CNN anchor Julia Chatterley in an interview following his annual State of the World Speech.

Still, he says China knows it cannot kill its private sector because it needs to keep growing and competing with American tech firms.

So, who's winning the global battle for tech primacy?

Right now, Bremmer believes the US and China are at tech parity — thanks to their tech giants.

"When we're talking about tech supremacy, we can't just talk about governments anymore."

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