OPN Shou Zi Chew
Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, testifies before the US Senate Judiciary Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on January 31, 2024 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony from the heads of the largest tech firms Image Credit: AFP

In Dave Eggers’ novel, “the Circle” the eponymous tech conglomerate, The Circle, epitomises the zenith of digital surveillance and data control, encapsulating the lives of its users within a single online identity. The Circle’s utopian premise of transparency and connectivity spirals into a dystopian reality where privacy is abolished, and personal freedoms are compromised under the guise of societal betterment. The omnipotent reach of The Circle, dictating social norms and influencing political processes, serves as a cautionary tale about the consolidation of power in the hands of a data-centric organisation.

This fictional story finds resonance in the real-world scrutiny faced by TikTok and its CEO, Shou Zi Chew, during the grilling by the US Senate Judiciary Committee. The concerns raised by the committee echo the themes explored in “The Circle,” particularly the fears regarding the impact of TikTok’s content on children’s mental health and the potential for user data to be exploited by foreign powers. The parallels between The Circle’s omnipresent surveillance and data control and the allegations against TikTok highlight the growing unease surrounding the influence of tech giants in our lives and the potential for misuse of the vast amounts of data they collect.

Read more by Aditya Sinha

Data sovereignty, emphasised in the wake of such discussions, is akin to a societal immune response seeking to establish boundaries and control over digital information. As digital technologies permeate every facet of human life, the volume, velocity, and variety of data being generated have reached unprecedented levels.

This surge has been accompanied by an increasing concentration of data control in the hands of a few global tech behemoths, raising concerns over privacy, security, and economic disparity. There are geopolitical implications for digital data flows, too. There is always a risk of digital colonialism, where data from economically weaker nations is exploited by more dominant economies, leading to calls for a more equitable digital order.

Legal and regulatory compliance

Thus, the increasing emphasis on digital sovereignty across the globe is driven by multifaceted concerns encompassing national security, where countries view data as a strategic asset vital for protecting against foreign threats; privacy, with rising awareness of how big data and AI can exploit personal information, leading to calls for safeguarding citizen rights; economic interests, aiming to retain the economic value generated from data within local economies rather than losing it to multinational corporations; cultural and political integrity, to prevent foreign digital platforms from influencing domestic cultural norms and political processes; and legal and regulatory compliance, ensuring that international tech companies adhere to local laws.

But how should countries ensure data sovereignty? First, governments can implement a multifaceted technical and legal framework, including robust data localisation policies, advanced encryption standards, and secure cloud infrastructure.

Data localisation laws mandate that certain types of data must be stored and processed within national boundaries, granting the country legal jurisdiction over the data. However, these policies must be balanced with the need for global data flows, necessitating sophisticated technical solutions like geofencing and region-specific data storage within multinational cloud services.

Second, enhancing data sovereignty requires the development of national digital infrastructure, such as government-operated or certified cloud platforms that comply with stringent data protection standards. This approach reduces dependency on foreign technology providers and mitigates risks related to data access by foreign governments. For instance, the European Union’s GAIA-X project aims to create a federated data infrastructure that adheres to the strict privacy rules of the GDPR, ensuring that data sovereignty aligns with individual privacy rights.

India has been proactively fortifying its digital sovereignty through a series of strategic regulatory initiatives, notably with the enactment of the Digital Personal Data Protection (DPDP) Act in 2023, which introduced a comprehensive legal framework for personal data processing. This pivotal legislation outlines rigorous obligations for data fiduciaries, emphasising principles such as legality, transparency, and purpose limitation while also instituting consent and “legitimate uses” as cornerstones for lawful data handling.

Escalating power struggle

Third, in addition to domestic measures, international cooperation and agreements are pivotal in navigating the complexities of data sovereignty in a globalised world. Frameworks like the EU-US Privacy Shield (before its invalidation) and subsequent negotiations for a new transatlantic data privacy framework exemplify efforts to reconcile the need for cross-border data flows with sovereign data governance.

These agreements must address key issues such as mutual recognition of data protection standards, mechanisms for data transfer, and dispute resolution procedures.

Fourth, ensuring data sovereignty involves deploying advanced cybersecurity measures, including end-to-end encryption, blockchain-based data tracking for transparency and auditability, and sophisticated access controls that enforce data residency and sovereignty policies. These technologies can empower nations to maintain control over their data while fostering a secure and open digital environment conducive to innovation and economic growth.

The escalating power struggle between global tech giants and regulatory authorities signals an inevitable shift towards prioritising data sovereignty worldwide. The quest for data sovereignty is a fundamental stand to reclaim control over our digital destinies, reminding us that in the end, the very fabric of our digital freedoms may hang in the balance.

Aditya Sinha is Officer on Special Duty, Research, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India. Views Personal.