Jim Balsillie on Data Governance Challenges and 6 Recommendations to tackle them

Testimony to the International Grand Committee on Big data, Privacy, and Democracy

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The Canadian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics hosted the hearing of the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy from Monday, May 27 to Wednesday, May 29.  Witnesses from at least 11 countries appeared before representatives to testify on how governments can protect democracy and citizen rights in the age of big data.

This section of the hearing, which took place on May 28, includes Jim Balsillie’s take on Data Governance.

Jim Balsillie, Chair, Centre for International Governance Innovation; Retired Chairman and co-CEO of BlackBerry, starts off by talking about how Data governance is the most important public policy issue of our time. It is cross-cutting with economic, social and security dimensions. It requires both national policy frameworks and international coordination. He applauded the seriousness and integrity of Mr. Zimmer Angus and Erskine Smith who have spearheaded a Canadian bipartisan effort to deal with data governance over the past three years.

“My perspective is that of a capitalist and global tech entrepreneur for 30 years and counting.

I’m the retired Chairman and co-CEO of Research in Motion, a Canadian technology company [that] we scaled from an idea to 20 billion in sales. While most are familiar with the iconic BlackBerry smartphones, ours was actually a platform business that connected tens of millions of users to thousands of consumer and enterprise applications via some 600 cellular carriers in over 150 countries. We understood how to leverage Metcalfe’s law of network effects to create a category-defining company, so I’m deeply familiar with multi-sided platform business model strategies as well as navigating the interface between business and public policy.”, he adds.


He further talks about his different observations about the nature, scale, and breadth of some collective challenges for the committee’s consideration:

  1. Disinformation in fake news is just two of the negative outcomes of unregulated attention based business models. They cannot be addressed in isolation; they have to be tackled horizontally as part of an integrated whole. To agonize over social media’s role in the proliferation of online hate, conspiracy theories, politically motivated misinformation, and harassment, is to miss the root and scale of the problem.
  2. Social media’s toxicity is not a bug, it’s a feature. Technology works exactly as designed. Technology products services and networks are not built in a vacuum. Usage patterns drive product development decisions. Behavioral scientists involved with today’s platforms helped design user experiences that capitalize on negative reactions because they produce far more engagement than positive reactions.
  3. Among the many valuable insights provided by whistleblowers inside the tech industry is this quote, “the dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will.” Democracy and markets work when people can make choices align with their interests. The online advertisement driven business model subverts choice and represents a fundamental threat to markets election integrity and democracy itself.
  4. Technology gets its power through the control of data. Data at the micro-personal level gives technology unprecedented power to influence. “Data is not the new oil, it’s the new plutonium amazingly powerful dangerous when it spreads difficult to clean up and with serious consequences when improperly used.” Data deployed through next-generation 5G networks are transforming passive in infrastructure into veritable digital nervous systems.

Our current domestic and global institutions rules and regulatory frameworks are not designed to deal with any of these emerging challenges. Because cyberspace knows no natural borders, digital transformation effects cannot be hermetically sealed within national boundaries; international coordination is critical.

With these observations, Balsillie has further provided six recommendations:

  1. Eliminate tax deductibility of specific categories of online ads.
  2. Ban personalized online advertising for elections.
  3. Implement strict data governance regulations for political parties.
  4. Provide effective whistleblower protections.
  5. Add explicit personal liability alongside corporate responsibility to effect the CEO and board of directors’ decision-making.
  6. Create a new institution for like-minded nations to address digital cooperation and stability.

Technology is becoming the new 4th Estate

Technology is disrupting governance and if left unchecked could render liberal democracy obsolete. By displacing the print and broadcast media and influencing public opinion, technology is becoming the new Fourth Estate. In our system of checks and balances, this makes technology co-equal with the executive that led the legislative and the judiciary.

When this new Fourth Estate declines to appear before this committee, as Silicon Valley executives are currently doing, it is symbolically asserting this aspirational co-equal status. But is asserting the status and claiming its privileges without the traditions, disciplines, legitimacy, or transparency that checked the power of the traditional Fourth Estate. The work of this international grand committee is a vital first step towards reset redress of this untenable current situation. Referring to what Professor Zuboff said last night, we Canadians are currently in a historic battle for the future of our democracy with a charade called sidewalk Toronto. He concludes by saying, “I’m here to tell you that we will win that battle.”

To know more you can listen to the full hearing video titled, “Meeting No. 152 ETHI – Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics” on ParlVU.

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