Many Faces and More Than One Pathway: Digital Data Governance

The Centre is going to discuss approaches to global cooperation in a specific, yet crucial, corner of the Internet: digital data. Global data cooperation is a trending topic but scholarly and policy debates, while rapidly evolving, are yet often siloed from another. An international workshop on 'Digital data governance: frameworks, technologies and controversies' in July will collect and select perspectives and approaches, convened by the Centre's digital data governance research group.  

The topic is gaining momentum. In the EU alone proposals during 2020 included a European Data Strategy, a Digital Services Act and a Digital Markets Act, which are also framed within the EU’s AI whitepaper. Meanwhile, China has listed data as a new factor of production (along with capital, land, labour and technology) and new attempts generating 'data markets'. The UN Secretary General’s process on Digital Cooperation has foreground data governance as a cross cutting issue particularly in the creation of digital public goods.

There is not one single approach or understanding to what digital data governance is, either conceptually or from a policy perspective. As it is seen at the Centre, how data are governed in the digital space is fundamentally a polycentric issue. Polycentric governance involves different actor constellations operating with multiple rationalities, normative orientations, ethical concerns, technologies, institutional arrangements. Polycentric governance theory has been used to address in particular the ownership of digital data and proposals from a common-pool resource perspective (Ostrom), particularly in the form of data commons, data trusts and ‘data sovereignty’ from a legal perspective (Delacroix, Lawrence). Yet, legal analysis is by no means disconnected from social, ethical, economic, political, technical and normative aspects of data governance. To expand the range of perspectives on data governance, dispersed forms of technical cooperation by firms, citizens, civil society should be in focus as well to generate insights into overlapping forms of governance. For example, traditional legal approaches of ownership and property rights about data in the digital space are highly contested in actual practices, as in the case of so-called ‘Smart Cities’. The management of data-based technologies in urban settings collected via sensors by public authorities and companies, implies different forms of citizens’ knowledge and consent about the data they generate, which underscores the challenges for (global) cooperation around the issue.

Another aspect concerns the ontological quality of data itself. Data is both governed and itself governs. Moreover, adaptive and rapidly expanding qualities of data pose a challenge for understanding governance in and of complex socio-technical systems. A relational view of data governing itself in relation to other data will be considered and connected to debates over polycentric governance to capture the varying and at times overlapping data actors and processes involving them. Some of these mechanisms have a stronger focus on the social and institutional engineering, such as the open data movement. Others have been developed more or less autonomously and anarchically, such as blockchain technologies or disrupting previous models of standard interoperability (as with the Internet of Things).

The group will have a focus on these questions (among others):

  • Is an increased cooperation among actors at the global, national, subnational possible, or desirable, for data governance?
  • What is/could be the role of different international organisations facing this challenge?
  • How do different technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain and Internet of Things (IoT) influence different data governance arrangements, conceptualizations and concerns?
  • How are contemporary digital data governance arrangements (dis)affecting some actors/communities more than others?
  • How are contemporary digital data governance approaches and practices undermining the legitimacy in ICT uses?

Researchers may contact members of the research group. The Centre will have more on this topic. So stay tuned.



Delacroix, S.; Lawrence, Neil D. (2019). Bottom-up data Trusts: disturbing the ‘one size fits all’ approach to data governance, International Data Privacy Law, Volume 9, Issue 4, November 2019, Pages 236–252.

Gadinger, F.; Scholte, J.A. (eds) (forthcoming). (DIS)ORDER: Techniques, Power and Legitimacy in Polycentric Govening, Oxford University Press.

Ostrom, E. (2005). Understanding institutional diversity. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press