Data as a stock-in-trade in global trade: Looking beyond outdated notions around data flows

Friday, 1 October 2021, 10:00 - 11:00 CEST

A session at the WTO Public Forum.


The flow of data has been mostly one-way for almost all of the existence of the internet. The Global North, especially the MNCs from the United States, have been at the receiving end as beneficiaries from data pumped from the Global South. The “free flow of data,” as Vahini Naidu pointed out in the panel, “is essentially one way, out of developing countries into the developed.” This makes it important for us to take a step-back and look at the material aspects of the ‘free-flow’ of data. A central question begs itself: Who does the free-flow of data benefit and who does it harm?

Vahini Naidu, from the South Centre, says that the free flows and liberalization of data and trade agreements have been concerning. Digital technologies can and should be used at local and national value chains, that is where our focus should be. If natural resources like water are not public goods, what is the intention behind the seeking to make data a public good? Finally, she welcomed the new UNCTAD report that asserts that data flows, unlike trade flows, are to be regulated differently; that they are to be treated as different objects, and the same laws cannot apply to them.

Sofia pointed out that data is a fundamental resource in our digital, capitalist economy. The concern she raised was whether the resource of data will be treated differently and fairly, or will be it be based upon the same extractivist principles used for all resources? She further asserted that data should be a common good, but not in the ‘free-flowing’ kind of way. She reasserted that it should be be a trade matter, and hence ought to be treated differently instead of at the WTO.

Ingrid pointed out that data is both an economic and political issue. The Big Tech is investing in health, media, and mobility sectors because of their power over data. She asserted that current national legislations are important, however they are also very dangerous. Her concern was that the idea of data sovereignty has not been clarified enough, and this leaves one suspicious as to what one may expect from the same.

Finally, Parminder pointed out that data is a resource but only in the sense that it provides intelligence. He insisted that while personal data is a resource, the bigger resource is non-personal or aggregated data. The intelligence that comes off of this is important to understand groups of people, reiterating the economic aspects of it. The question of governing such data then is of central importance. Parminder pointed out the Non-Personal Data report by a committee appointed by the Government of India, that he is a part of, as an example of the good that can come out of concepts about community ownership of data. He also welcomed the UNCTAD report that data should be taken out of trade conversations.

The event was organized by: Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN); Transnational Institute (TNI); New Economics Foundation (NEF), UK; IT for Change (ITfC), India; Instituto del Tercer Mundo (Third World Institute) (ITeM), Uruguay.


  • Gita Sen, DAWN, General Coordinator
  • Vahini Naidu, Coordinator, Trade for Development Program, South Centre
  • Parminder Jeet Singh, Executive Director, IT for Change
  • Ingrid Schneider, University of Hamburg, Professor, Department of Political Sciences
  • Sofia Scasserra, Associate Researcher, Transnational Institute