Data justice for an inclusive pan-African Digital Single Market
Efficient intra-regional trade and supply chain management relies on the smooth flow of goods, services, capital, and data — thus cross- border movement of data is essential to many aspects of e-commerce and digital trade. But, digital trade and e-commerce do not exist in isolation, they require several complex cross-cutting considerations for regulatory convergence, harmonisation of legal frameworks, internet governance, information and communications technology (ICT) policy reform, and strategic regional ICT infrastructure investments and implementation, to name a few. A matter of concern is that while data is crucial for e-commerce and digital trade, existing multidimensional structural inequality in Africa means that datafication of economic activity will have uneven implications for different groups and communities in a data-driven economy.
The African Union Commission’s (AUC) Digital Transformation Strategy (DTS), Data Policy Framework and African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) all detail aspirations of the attainment of a Digital Single Market (DSM) by 2030. However, multiple demand-side and supply-side obstacles prevent the realisation of meaningful access to quality data, the ability to create value (intelligence and insights) from data, and an environment supportive of data-driven innovation and digital entrepreneurship. Important considerations are the way people are made visible, represented, and treated because of their production (or lack there of) of digital data. Also, a matter of concern are how disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) algorithms are used to create decisions from this data.
Addressing these obstacles means taking into account several objectives such as ensuring consumer and business trust, promoting digital inclusion, harmonisation of data quality standards and strengthening connectivity infrastructure, to name a few.
Understanding the inter-connection amongst these cross-cutting issues is crucial to mitigate risks and address both barriers to and opportunities in the creation of a DSM powered by data. This requires incorporating clear exceptions for legitimate domestic data localisation policies in a manner that does not hinder the transformative power of digital trade and e-commerce, hamstring the competitiveness of regional and/or continental data and digital ecosystems ,nor undermine domestic data economy development. Partnerships and strong institutions are required to foster digital economic integration that is inclusive, forward-looking and supports coherence that can address across multiple offline and online related challenges.
An unsiloed approach and understanding of the interconnection amongst these cross-cutting issues is crucial to mitigate risks and address both barriers and opportunities in creating a rights respecting DSM powered by data. The following are key considerations for data justice when implementing the Pan-African DSM:
Identifying the legal and non-legal barriers that hinder access to data, free flow of data within Africa, and the potential implications of these approaches in undermining efforts for the transparency, predictability, digital rights, and legal certainty of transactions and confidence in data-driven digital ecosystems. This requires incorporating clear exceptions for legitimate domestic data localisation policies in a manner that does not hinder the transformative power of digital trade and e-commerce, hamstring the competitiveness of regional and/or continental data and digital ecosystems ,nor undermine domestic data economy development. These barriers should be addressed in a manner that promotes equity, digital inclusion, and economic justice for all Africans participating in the DSM.
Using a systematic approach to develop contextually relevant solutions on how seamless and secure cross-border data flows and data value creation can facilitate digital trade, e-commerce, and cross-border payment systems interoperability, in a manner that simultaneously mitigates risks to data justice and is inclusive for groups that are often marginalised in digital trade and e-commerce ecosystems; such as those in the informal economy, small businesses, women, and youth. Beyond data justice considerations, other requisites also include addressing the global data divide and digitalising traditional customs and trade facilitation processes.
Developing an evidence base to inform and capacitate policymakers, regulators, data stewards, and negotiators on how the AfCFTA and other continental instruments can facilitate an integrated approach to harmonised and mutually reinforcing policies for digital trade, cross border e-commerce, and regional ICT infrastructure development. There should also be an experimental approach to formulate regulation that promotes the protection of citizen’s digital rights, individual access and control of data, mitigates data privacy and cyber security risks, and promotes shared benefits and prosperity from regional and global digital dividends.
Considering the trans-disciplinary nature of datafication, different interests and perspectives on governing data, and the multiple stakeholders that shape data-driven economic development. Partnerships and strong institutions are required to foster digital economic integration that is inclusive, forward-looking and supports coherence that can address multiple offline and online related challenges and mitigate negative societal implications related to the datafication of society and economic activity. It is crucial to leverage multi-stakeholder participation and pan-African cooperation offered by existing institutional frameworks of civil society, the private sector, regional economic communities (RECs) , and AUC member states. This is important to encourage the political will and cooperation that can facilitate the regulatory convergence, infrastructure interoperability, transversal policy reform, and coordinated action required to leverage inclusive digital transformation and data justice for the DSM.
Exploring the potential opportunities of a consolidated and shared African data-driven digital ecosystem powered by interdependent advanced digital technologies (Big data, AI, Blockchain, cloud computing etc.) that underpin digital transformation and will evolve to drive future economic and societal changes. The economic and societal risks associated with deploying these advanced technologies and data-driven digital systems in inequitable ecosystems should also be considered.
Ensuring all Africans are online and equipped with the digital capabilities to participate and thrive in the DSM. This will require addressing multiple demand and supply side impediments that inhibit meaningful connectivity, access, and use of ICTs, including access and use of data. Crucial prerequisites such as addressing energy and electrification deficits and human capital investments to create a digitally capable workforce, across the continent are needed in conjunction with regulatory reform to create an enabling environment aimed at strengthening investor confidence, for critical infrastructure investments.
Given that the uneven technological geopolitical power dynamics , historical contexts, social structures, and dominant agendas (mostly from the global North) also impact how the datafication of society is framed and how it will promote or hinder data justice, there should be African led trans-disciplinary systems thinking research and an evidence base to inform public policy making and advocate for digital strategies that leverage data as a tool to enhance data justice centered e-commerce and digital trade.
Strategic foresight and planning is needed to realise a secure, rights-respecting, and transformative data-driven African DSM. This requires that public decision makers make concerted efforts in their approach to governing data, protecting digital rights, strengthening investments in critical infrastructure, ensuring meaningful connectivity, and maintaining cybersecurity, in a mutually reinforcing manner at a national, regional, continental, and global level.
A major factor to realise the DSM will not only depend on continental policy harmonisation for cross-border data policy integration, but also how countries adapt and invest in technologies like broadband connectivity, e-commerce, integrated payment systems, and integrated digital identity systems, with advanced technologies such as big data, cloud computing services, and AI as enablers to rapidly scale-up ICT capacities in response to demand. In addition, reinforcing the capacity of African firms and entrepreneurs to leverage quality data, trade easily within Africa’s borders and reach a global data driven marketplace requires not only significant progress in Africa’s digital infrastructure, but focus on adequate investment in human capital and technical assistance to design and implement policies that ensure that data driven digital trade and e-commerce is secure, sustainable and transformative, for all Africans.
The realisation of a secure, rights-respecting, just , and transformative data -driven African DSM requires governing data and protecting privacy in a mutually reinforcing manner which simultaneously balances creating the requisite digital trade and e-commerce enablers, whilst upholding the right to meaningful connectivity, and security for a thriving data economy.
This blog was first published in 2022 here