Switzerland needs a constructive data policy

The vision has been clear for some time: we want a cooperative, participatory and open use of the data that is accumulating in ever greater quantities in the economy and society. A flourishing Linked Open Data ecosystem is one of the goals; another is the self-determined exchange of data concerning oneself or in the generation of which one has participated. This requires a data policy that gives the highest priority to inter-organisational cooperation and the empowerment of citizens. However, we are still a long way from achieving this in Switzerland today. If Switzerland wants to actively use its room for manoeuvre in terms of data policy and not let Google, Facebook & Co dictate its strategic decisions, politics, business and administration must hurry up. We urgently need a coherent, future-oriented data policy. But first and foremost, data must become a matter for the boss. Data is the strategic resource of the 21st century and determines our economic, social and cultural life. Data is the basis for economic decisions, administrative processes and scientific knowledge. The evaluation of explosively growing mountains of data – Big Data – is increasingly taking place automatically with the help of so-called artificial intelligences and learning machines. The central question in the digitalised society is therefore who collects the data, who has access to the data and who controls its use.

Data ownership changes power relations

In the last 10 to 15 years, global data monopolies have emerged that possess a hitherto unimaginable amount of information and knowledge. Almost 2.5 billion people help them to do so. We are all employed by Google, Facebook & Co as data typists and increase their immense treasure trove of data with every click. As users, we are allowed to use the really practical apps and pay for them with our data. However, their evaluation and further use is beyond our control and we do not participate in the huge profits of the global data giants. Only slowly is it dawning on us that the data power of these corporations is not a temporary phenomenon, but poses fundamental and long-term problems for the power relations in our society. Because data is the basis for knowledge, and knowledge is power.

Data is the basis for knowledge, and knowledge is power.

Thanks to the cooperation of all of us, the global internet platforms also have an immense and rapidly growing mountain of data about Switzerland and its inhabitants. This far dwarfs the amount of data held by the administration and other public and private sector organisations. Thanks to this amount of data, Google, Facebook, Amazon & Co already know much more about our consumer behaviour, our mobility or our social relationships than our public institutions and ourselves. For the time being, this knowledge is primarily used for personalised advertising. But the aforementioned platforms are already beginning to penetrate new areas of application such as finance, insurance, health or education. It is only a matter of time before they extend their data tentacles into public administration and politics. Switzerland is fundamentally challenged by this development. The data that public administrations and companies in the public and private sectors collect and collate is a high-quality and extremely valuable resource. But its practical importance is diminishing very rapidly. What is the significance of the Confederation’s geodata if almost all of them are no longer available?

It is only a matter of time before they extend their data tentacles into public administration and politics.

Will the inhabitants and residents of Switzerland be able to find their way around using Google Maps? What is the point of an electronic patient file if millions of people in Switzerland first entrust their health problems to Facebook, Whatsapp or Alexa? And what is the point of elaborately collected economic data if Amazon, Mastercard and Booking.com already know the consumer behaviour and financial circumstances of the Swiss population down to the smallest detail?

Platforms use apps to bind users to themselves

So what can Switzerland, what can its institutions, companies and inhabitants do against the overwhelming data power of the global internet corporations? Has the battle not already been lost? A look at the current data situation in Switzerland is not very encouraging. The aforementioned global platforms enjoy enormous popularity among users and occupy their attention for up to several hours every day, during which they continuously generate data. The applications of Swiss companies and administrations, on the other hand, tie their users to them for a few minutes per week or month at most. The volume of data generated by them is correspondingly low. In addition, Swiss companies and administrations hoard their painstakingly collected data crumbs in closed silos, rarely use them for new insights into their customers and the development of new offers, and certainly do not want to share them with other companies or administrations. The individuals concerned usually do not have access to the data they generate, and the Swiss

Data and its use must become a priority strategic issue in politics, business and administration.

For years, the public has been waiting in vain for systematic open access to all the administration’s non-personal data financed with taxpayers’ money. Few attractive applications, closed data silos, no further use, no user participation, little open data and no cooperation among those responsible for data – this sums up the current, rather dismal data situation of Swiss companies and administrations. In fact, it’s an easy game for the global platforms, which are miles ahead of Switzerland in all these points and are extending their lead every day. So what to do? There are numerous answers to this question, but one point stands above all others: data and its use must become a priority strategic issue in politics, business and administration. Data is neither a technical nor a legal issue that can be delegated to IT specialists or lawyers. Data is a matter for the boss, also in politics. Analogous to energy, transport or health policy, a data policy will be needed in the future. With the availability and use of data, nothing less than the future of the country is at stake. The task of data policy is to guarantee the basic supply of data to Switzerland and its inhabitants and thus digital self-determination at all levels in the long term and sustainably. The data power of the global internet corporations must be countered by the cooperative, participatory and open use of data that is under the control of Swiss companies and administrations.

Switzerland needs a revised data protection law

Numerous legislative tasks await parliament and government in the context of data policy. Existing laws must be adapted and supplemented in such a way that the comprehensive provision and use of our data can take place on a flawless legal basis. This includes adapting the Swiss Data Protection Act as quickly as possible to the de facto status of the European General Data Protection Regulation and, in particular, anchoring the right to data portability in this law. On the basis of robust data protection, data policy also includes a uniform legal framework for the publication and use of non-personal data and services of the federal administration in the sense of Open Government Data. The experience of recent years has shown that a non-binding strategy is not sufficient to make the administration’s treasure trove of data systematically accessible to the public. Therefore, the Swiss Federal Audit Office recommended in its cross-sectional audit on the strategy implementation Open Government Data to “create an effective framework for OGD”. A parliamentary motion to this effect was formulated by the Parldigi Digital Sustainability Parliamentary Group back in 2015, but – out of consideration for Federal Councillor Alain Berset’s reservations at the time – was not submitted. Given the urgency of data policy measures, the deadline for these concerns has expired. Switzerland needs an OGD law as soon as possible that, analogous to the GDPR, corresponds to the European standard in this area.

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AUTHOR: André Golliez

President Opendata.ch and Swiss Data Alliance

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