A Starting Point: Transversal Questions and Recommendations for Montreal’s Digital Data Charter

Response to the City of Montreal’s public consultation on Montreal’s Digital Data Charter

Written by Jess Reia and Ana Brandusescu

Une version française de ce billet a été publiée ici.

(J. Reia, licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Montreal’s Digital Data Charter, as presented for public consultation, is a good start. The document, with its 13 principles, represents a first step toward better data governance and digital rights at the municipal level. Montreal has been in the spotlight for its technology industry, as an artificial intelligence hub and recently, as a smart city. In a context where digital data assumes such a prominent role, it is important to safeguard fundamental rights and build a solid regulatory framework, while promoting an innovative environment. We therefore recommend a few changes to the consultation process and to the Charter’s principles.

The process of public consultation is crucial in the formulation and implementation of such an impactful document. However, the website did not have a clear deadline for the contributions, and the means of participation were quite limited: it was done either via Polis (contributions were limited to 140 characters, not enough to develop broader analyses), or by email (other stakeholders and citizens could not see the comments). Yet, there are other tools available that could increase participation and dialogue without imposing a heavy burden on analysts. Such a relevant document should be openly discussed in an online platform and at a virtual town hall, given the current restrictions imposed by the pandemic. We also recommend including an explanation on how the feedback collected (including email contributions) will be presented to the public.

The reflections presented here address the need to go beyond ethics issues as a lens to frame the document and the questions it raises. It is also necessary to look into technical, political, and regulatory lenses. The main concern is that by focusing on ethics, some issues can be too abstract, and could lead to avoiding commitment to specific issues. Some of these are discussed below.

Technological and Data Governance

There is not a single mention of technological sovereignty and digital rights (terms that encompass both human rights and legal rights) and data governance in the document. International multistakeholder forums (such as the United Nations’ Internet Governance Forum) have been debating these concepts and regulatory frameworks for years, providing insights, studies and policy documents that should not be ignored. Instead of “Protect human rights in the digital age,” we could state the protection of digital rights. The document needs to differentiate individual and collective rights, clearly stating how the City of Montreal will collaborate with Indigenous Data Sovereignty initiatives — such as the First Nations Principles of OCAP® and the Global Indigenous Data Alliance — as parallel data governance mechanisms. In terms of cybersecurity (Principle 3), the document could benefit from an explanation of collective information and collective privacy. How does the City envision implementing collective data governance beyond individual rights?

Digital Sovereignty (Principle 7) needs elaboration on the role of the platform economy in relation to data collection and management, since these companies profit from the use of urban infrastructure and collect data that could be publicized. How will companies respect digital rights? Finding a way to design such initiatives in cooperation with the companies physically operating in Montreal would launch the City as a leading voice in this debate, joining innovative cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam. In short, it is important for the City to clarify the what (strategic plan, data to be shared), who (participating actors), and how (City’s vision of the process). Asking these questions is a fundamental part of the process. Given this, we need more awareness around partners and collaborators of the municipal government in this process, a feature that will improve transparency (Principle 9) and accountability, a term surprisingly mentioned only in the Charter’s introduction. Additionally, the fact that intellectual property and industry secrecy (Principle 7) are framed as fundamental rights — side by side with privacy and confidentiality — is problematic, because it places proprietary rights in the same category of other rights that are not only incomparable, but that can also be conflicting. We also worry that the corporate terminology used in the Charter (i.e., Lean IT, digital sobriety, technical agnosticism, and public and private stakeholders described as a community) may favour asymmetrically certain private interests over public interests.

We were surprised to see very little emphasis (perhaps none) on openness, as the City is an open data champion and subscribes to a comprehensive Open Data Policy. AsMontreal is adopting a smart city agenda that promotes a “Montreal in common,” exploring new possibilities, testing ideas and collectively sharing learnings, data interoperability and portability (Principle 8) are crucial. In line with collective efforts, it is important for new services and products to prioritize openness. For instance, the City could promote and adopt free and open source software, benefiting from the established community of developers and other citizen-led, solution-oriented practices beyond hackathons. Openness also fosters collaboration with other cities by sharing knowledge, technologies and solutions.

Discrimination Issues and Inclusion

The potential for discrimination caused by the adoption of certain technologies is widely documented, and it must be addressed in a clearer way in the Charter. Principle 2 (Inclusion), for example, needs to be expanded to include a broader perspective of intersectionality than the GBA+. Issues of systemic racial and ethnic discrimination — one of the central topics of 2020 and addressed by the mayor, Valérie Plante — as well as religious discrimination might be considered when designing and implementing the Charter. It is also important to note that some people and groups might not want to be visible, especially when dealing with sensitive information, such as information on religion, sexual orientation, and gender expression/identity.

We understand the need to innovate and push boundaries. However, Principle 12 (Framed Experiment) creates a loophole in the Charter, facilitating the violation of other principles and even inflicting potential harms according to a vague notion of innovation. Understanding these dangerous implications is as important as having in mind that experimentation often happens at the expense of the most vulnerable. Loose affirmations such as “However, we will avoid drifting toward practices that may jeopardize human rights” will neither ensure nor enforce the respect of digital rights.

Universal access (Principle 10) is a fundamental goal for citizens’ rights. “Bridging the digital divide” requires elaboration. Does it imply connectivity and free Wi-Fi in public spaces? We recommend the collection of open data on internet access in Montreal and affordability of internet use. Rather than a top-down approach on data collection, can the City conduct data collection based on citizen needs?

Citizen-led initiatives, public interest and the importance of consent

We understand that principles are aspirational, but we are unsure how “full citizen control on the digital footprint” (Principle 4) can be guaranteed or even monitored. We recognize that education and training are key. Additionally, we recommend critical data literacy that can provide citizens with the knowledge to assess the parameters of consent beyond data literacy.

My Data Rights in Africa and the DECODE project in Europe are two civil society-led initiatives that discuss at length the importance of privacy, data protection and citizen-centred policies. Barcelona and Amsterdam, for example, are building tools to deploy decentralised data infrastructure that focus on citizen-led data ownership and control, while respecting digital rights. Montreal can follow a similar path and become one of the leading voices in innovative solutions for data governance and technology sovereignty.

Public interest can reflect the public more than the common good, shifting the perspective to the wellbeing of citizens. Is the platform economy included in the City’s plans for the Charter? What about public-private partnerships, agencies, etc.? It is difficult to champion for the common good without mentioning the involvement (and influence) of industry. Are bottom-up approaches to collecting data considered? For example, collecting data on behalf of the community by the community for the community. Moreover, in Principle 5 (Digital Sobriety) it is unclear who the decision makers behind what is considered legitimate data would be and the criteria for choosing this data. We reaffirm the Charter is an important commitment for the City and the municipal data governance efforts, and we look forward to seeing the next steps of this process.

This post is the sole responsibility of its author.

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