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We need a new era of international data diplomacy

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From contact-tracing apps to telemedicine, digital health innovations that can help tackle coronavirus have been adopted swiftly during the pandemic. Lagging far behind, however, are any investigations of their reliability and the implications for privacy and human rights.

In the wake of this surge in “techno-solutionism”, the world needs a new era of data diplomacy to catch up.

Big data holds great promise in improving health outcomes. But it requires norms and standards to govern collection, storage and use, for which there is no global consensus. 

The world broadly comprises four data zones — China, the US, the EU and the remainder. The state-centric China zone, where individuals have no control over their personal data, is often portrayed as the poster child of the long-threatened Orwellian society.

A woman scans a QR code of a local app to track personal data for the Covid-19 containment in Zouping in east China’s Shandong province © Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Yet the corporation-centric US zone is also disempowering. The “consent” that users provide to companies is meaningless. Most consumers do not read the endless pages of fine print before “agreeing”, while not consenting means opting out of the digital world and is seldom useful.

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation goes furthest in entrenching the rights of EU citizens to safeguard their privacy and provide a measure of control over personal data.

But it is not without drawbacks. Costs of compliance are high, with small and medium-sized companies facing a disproportionately large bill that strengthens the large companies that the regulation was designed to rein in. There are also varying interpretations of the rules by different national data protection authorities.

The rest of the world does not have the capacity to create meaningful data governance. Governments are either de facto observers of others’ rules or stumble along with a non-regime. One-fifth of countries have no data protection and privacy legislation, according to figures from Unctad, the UN’s trade and development agency.

Global diplomacy is needed to bring some harmony in norms and practices between these four zones, but the task is not easy. Data straddles our prosperity, health, commerce, quality of democracy, security and safety.

A starting point could be a technology charter of principles, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It may not be fully applied everywhere, but it could serve as a beacon of hope — particularly for citizens in countries with oppressive regimes — and could guide the drafting of national and subnational legislation.

A second focus should be the equitable taxation of multinational digital platforms that use canny accounting practices to cut their tax bill. While the largest share of users — and one that is growing fast — are in populous poorer parts of the world, the value created from their data goes to richer countries.

This imbalance, coupled with widespread use of tax havens by multinational technology companies, is exacerbating government funding gaps already under pressure because of the pandemic.

Send us your ideas on how technology can improve healthcare

The Lancet and FT Commission comprises independent leading experts who will publish their peer-reviewed report in late 2021. Share your views here.

Read the rest of our Future of AI & Healthcare special report here.

A third priority is to revisit statistics. Just as the UN System of National Accounts was introduced in the 1950s, today we need a set of universally accepted definitions and practices to categorise data.

That would allow us to measure and understand the nature of the new data-driven economy. National statistical agencies must be strengthened to gather information and to act as stewards of ever greater quantities of personal data.

Finally, just as the financial crisis of 2007-08 led to the creation of the Financial Stability Forum (a global panel of regulators now called the Financial Stability Board), the Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity to galvanise action through a digital stability board.

Members could produce a set of global public goals for data, developing model standards, regulations and policies, sharing best practices and monitoring risks.

One output could be ways to oversee personal information such as data trusts — legal entities that appoint stewards to manage individuals’ data for a designated purpose such as health research, much as retirement savings accounts operate. Another could be regular reports on risks and vulnerabilities in the global data infrastructure.

Governance structures should not be simply restrictive but should also encourage valuable digital innovation that produces important benefits ethically and equitably. Data pools managed in the public interest, for instance, would serve as a resource for scientific advancement for public and private teams around the world.

Crafting a multilateral consensus on something as amorphous and far-reaching as data is a daunting task. Understandably, governments are focusing on short-term health and economic crisis management at the moment.

However, the response to coronavirus has highlighted larger challenges of governance in the digital era. There is a risk that urgent priorities will crowd out a longer-term focus on the need for a well-run data-driven world.

But the costs of neglect in continued erosions of privacy and harm to prosperity and openness would be a heavy price to pay.

The writer is president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a member of the Lancet-FT Commission on Governing Health Futures



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Polish women count cost of tough abortion curbs

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Even before Poland all but outlawed abortion, Zofia has been thinking about moving abroad. But the near-ban that took effect earlier this year helped her make up her mind: this autumn she plans to move to Prague in the Czech Republic.

“I feel better there, freer, and being a woman there doesn’t make me feel weaker or worse,” she said. “I love my life in Warsaw. But when the [abortion ban was mooted], I thought, I don’t want to live here any more . . . And I don’t want my kids to live here.”

The 31-year-old artist is one of thousands of Polish women outraged by the tightening of the country’s abortion laws which, even before the overhaul, were among the strictest in the EU. Their anger centres on a ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal in October last year, which declared that a 1993 law allowing abortions in the case of severe foetal abnormalities was unconstitutional.

The ruling came into force in January, leaving only two grounds for an abortion in Poland: a threat to the mother’s health or if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. Such cases made up just 2.4 per cent of the 1,100 legal abortions in Poland in 2019.

Hundreds of thousands of Poles took to the streets when the ruling was announced in October, and activists have called for another round of protests on International Women’s Day this Monday. Polling suggests that a majority of Poles back some form of liberalisation.

Anti-abortion campaigners, often guided by their religion in what remains one of Europe’s most strongly Catholic countries, say the change was needed to protect the rights of unborn children.

“An unborn child is a separate person, which has its own body and its own rights. A child must not be deprived of the fundamental right of every human being — the right to life,” Kaja Godek, one of Poland’s most prominent anti-abortion campaigners, wrote on Facebook last month.

A pro-life poster in Krakow. Many Polish opponents of abortion are guided by faith in one of Europe’s most strongly Catholic countries
A pro-life poster in Krakow. Many Polish opponents of abortion are guided by religion in one of Europe’s most strongly Catholic countries © Omar Marques/Getty Images

But activists say the ruling will force women to give birth to babies with such severe abnormalities that they have no chance of survival. They also say the government has done too little to help the families of children born with disabilities, who receive only limited support.

“I’m terrified because for me as a woman in reproductive age, it means getting pregnant in Poland became dangerous. And I’m afraid for my sister, for my colleagues and friends, for my relatives and for many other women I meet every day as clients,” said Kamila Ferenc, a lawyer from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, a women’s rights group.

“They will be in a horrible position . . . they have lost the possibility to decide freely on their own, because it’s not so easy to have an abortion outside the system.”

In the past, Polish women who could afford it were able to seek abortions in neighbouring countries with more liberal laws, such as the Czech Republic or Slovakia. But with the pandemic limiting travel, experts say women are likely to turn to the internet to buy drugs from overseas that would allow them to carry out abortions at home. Women are not prosecuted for self-managed abortions carried out before the 22nd week of pregnancy.

“It used to be the case that illegal abortions were through surgical procedures by doctors and back-alley providers. Then abortion tourism rose in the early 2000s after Poland joined the EU. Now we are seeing an increase in self-managed abortions, which can be less of a financial and emotional burden,” said Maria Lewandowska, a researcher into reproductive health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Justyna Wydrzynska, from Abortion Dream Team, a group that helps women who want to terminate their pregnancies, said that since the abortion rules were tightened in January, the organisation had received three times the normal number of calls from women seeking help.

“We get around 600 to 700 phone calls a month. Around 100 of them need to go abroad [for an abortion], and for the rest, . . . these are mostly people in need of pills, assistance in taking pills or post-abortion care,” she said.

“Often they are human dramas. Some people approach it in a task-oriented way, others very emotionally. Sometimes it is very difficult.”

Despite the huge protests last year, women’s rights groups acknowledge that as long as Poland’s conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party remains in power, the prospect of the laws being loosened is minimal. But they hope that in the long run, the debate sparked by the ruling will lead to greater support for liberalisation.

“The factual situation of pregnant women is worse. But on the other hand I think we are now on a better track to change the situation than when [the previous government led by the centre-right] Civic Platform ruled and everybody thought everything was all right,” said Ferenc.

“There is more courage in society to speak about abortion. People educate themselves and each other. I think that we now have more solidarity and strength in society to fight for reproductive rights. ”



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Hong Kong dropped from economic freedom index after crackdown

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Hong Kong has been dropped from a prominent index of the world’s freest economies, underlining growing concerns over Beijing’s tightening grip on the Asian financial centre after it introduced a national security law last year.

The announcement from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think-tank, came as the majority of a group of 47 pro-democracy politicians were refused bail in a case that critics say shows the rapid decline of civic freedoms in the city.

The Heritage Foundation also dropped the Chinese special autonomous region of Macau, a casino hub and former Portuguese colony, from the rankings.

The foundation in recent years has been aligned with the administration of former US president Donald Trump.

“No doubt both Hong Kong and Macau . . . enjoy economic policies that in many respects offer their citizens more economic freedom than is available to the average citizen of China,” the Heritage Foundation said. “But developments in recent years have demonstrated unambiguously that those policies are ultimately controlled from Beijing.”

Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last year in response to anti-government protests that engulfed the city in 2019.

The measures are part of a clampdown on civil and political freedoms guaranteed to the city for 50 years following its handover from the UK to China in 1997. Authorities are targeting anyone viewed as disloyal to the Chinese government in politics, education and the media.

The Hong Kong government has long taken pride in studies showing its economy to be one of the most liberal in the world, with the city marketing itself as an international business haven given its low tax rates and open port.

The Heritage Foundation last year replaced Hong Kong at the top of its “Index of Economic Freedom” with Singapore, toppling it from a position it had held for 25 years, but still included the territory in the rankings in second place.

The Hong Kong government said it was ‘dismayed’ by the Heritage Foundation’s decision and said it was “politically biased”.

The case against the 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists has been seen as a test of whether the city’s legal system can withstand pressure from Beijing.

Authorities charged the group with subversion, alleging they aimed to topple the government by staging an unofficial primary vote to select candidates to run for election to the city’s legislature. Subversion is punishable with up to life imprisonment under the national security law.

The bail hearings, presided over by a judge appointed to oversee national security cases, entered their fourth day on Thursday.

Victor So, the judge overseeing the case, only granted bail to 15 out of 47 defendants under harsh conditions, but the prosecution immediately appealed the ruling, returning them to custody until the appeal hearing takes place. 

On top of the usual bail conditions, the court ordered the defendants to not participate in elections or make any public political statements.

Sessions have often stretched late into the evening, including one that continued until 3am before the defendants were hauled back before the court the next day. At least one defendant collapsed inside the courtroom and six others were sent to hospital for treatment.

As they exited the court, some defendants shouted: “Political criminals are not guilty, Hong Kongers will not die!”

Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the treatment of the defendants was “most unsatisfactory”. Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University, said the way the hearing was conducted “makes a farce of procedural fairness”.

Some of the defendants have faced multiple trials simultaneously and were forced to shuffle between courtrooms.

The defendants’ lawyers said on Tuesday their clients had not bathed in three days, forcing the judge to delay the hearing to allow them to wash.

Hong Kong has tight restrictions on reporting the substance of bail hearings.

Hundreds of supporters have queued each day in an attempt to watch the proceedings in person. Many held placards and chanted banned political slogans, risking prosecution under the security law.



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Pakistan’s finance minister ousted in surprise defeat for Imran Khan

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Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan suffered a major political setback on Wednesday, when his finance minister was defeated in a contest for a seat in the country’s senate.

Khan must now appoint a successor to the cabinet post by June 11 under Pakistani law. The surprise defeat of finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, a respected economist and former world bank official who led the country’s negotiations with the IMF for a $6bn loan, comes amid an escalating campaign by main opposition parties to have the prime minister removed from office.

Elected officials vote to fill vacated seats in the senate every three years. Following the result, the government announced it would “take a vote of confidence in parliament” to prove that the prime minister retained a majority of support.

Business leaders have warned that Shaikh’s departure creates uncertainty over the future of Pakistan’s fiscal policies as the country battles the pandemic’s fallout on the economy.

“Right now, it was essential to give a message of confidence to a range of stake holders within and outside Pakistan on the state of our economy. Now, people will be left asking questions,” the president of a private Pakistani bank told the Financial Times.

An 11-party opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), has accused Khan of using the powerful military to tip the 2018 election result in his favour — which leaders from the prime minister’s party have denied — and for failing to revive the moribund economy.

The PDM has announced a March 26 deadline for Khan to step down or face widespread opposition protests.

Though some opposition leaders have said they plan to follow up Wednesday’s defeat with a vote of no confidence against Khan, analysts said it was too early to predict his downfall ahead of the end of his five-year term in 2023.

“It’s a major upset for Imran Khan and his PTI (Pakistan Justice Party),” said Huma Baqai, a political commentator at the University of Karachi. “The government from hereon will face further pressure as the opposition continues to step up its campaign.”

The vote count suggested a break in Khan’s PTI party, with as many as 16 party members either voting for the finance minister’s opponent, former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, or spoiling their ballots.

Shaikh’s defeat “will not automatically lead to the prime minister’s downfall. Some PTI members clearly changed sides [for this vote]. But it will be much harder for them to agree to removing the prime minister,” an opposition leader told the FT.

Faisal Javed, a PTI leader, claimed some representatives had been bribed by the opposition. “There has been a major corruption. There has been horse-trading. People have been sold,” he told the local ARY news channel on Wednesday. Opposition leaders have denied this.

The electoral college for the senate consists of members from legislatures of Pakistan’s four provinces as well as the lower house of parliament in Islamabad known as the national assembly.



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