#TechTalk on Pioneering Digital Trust - the Swiss Digital Initiative ft. Swissnex China

Jessica Espinosa • June 2022

Techtalk Recap

On June 21st, the Swiss Digital Initiative (SDI) in partnership with Swissnex China co-hosted the discussion panel Pioneering Digital Trust – A Commitment to Digital Responsibility. The event brought together experts from academia, civil society and the business sector from China and Switzerland to discuss the definition of digital trust and responsibility, their perspectives and insights on the topic and possible solutions for the current challenges experienced in the digital realm.

There is an urgency for trust as digitalization thrives. Just a few days ago the Reuters Institute published its 2022 Digital News Report and their research showed that trust in digital news media has fallen back in most countries. As digitalization occurs, people are becoming increasingly concerned about artificial intelligence, automation, the use given to their personal data, hackers and cyberattacks. With new tech challenges arising, trust is becoming a dealbreaker for both service providers and consumers.

In this context, the Swiss Digital Initiative developed the Digital Trust Label (DTL) meant to signal the trustworthiness of a service, based on 35 criteria divided into four categories: Security, Data Protection, Reliability and Fair User Interaction. The Label gives users more information and transparency to empower their decision-making and denotes a company’s commitment to digital responsibility. Through this, and other specific projects, SDI seeks to contribute to digital ethics and trust by putting principles into practice and guaranteeing the existence of certain digital standards, not only in Switzerland but worldwide.

Swissnex is an initiative of the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation which is managed by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, with offices in the most innovative regions around the globe. Swissnex provides a global network that connects Switzerland and the world to advance topics such as education, research and innovation to potentiate the exchange of knowledge, ideas and talent.

Therefore, to raise awareness of Digital Trust internationally and to further develop the DTL with international experts, SDI partnered up with Swissnex in China. Given the size and importance of the Chinese tech industry, and its role in the shaping of global digital innovation and services, it is fundamental for SDI’s work to understand what role digital trust plays here.

The panel took place via Zoom and brought together a high-level group of experts from academia, civil society, and the business sector from both China and Switzerland, resulting in a very constructive dialogue. For around 90 minutes, the audience was able to gain deeper insight into Swissnex and SDI’s work, the Digital Trust Label, and what digital trust entails and means in different contexts.

The Panel takeaways – Digital Trust cannot be ignored

The discussion panel was integrated by both Chinese and Swiss experts. To understand China’s perspectives, we had de opportunity to talk to Dr. Weiwen Duan, Director & Professor of the Department of Philosophy of Science and Technology at the Chinese Academy of Social Science; George Lu, Digital Trust and Analytics Leader at PwC China; and Jeff Cao, Senior Research Fellow at Tencent Research Institute. On the Swiss side, Dr. Martin Rajman Executive Director of nano-tera.ch, and Senior Scientist at EPFL; Nikki Bohler, Director of Opendata.ch; and Nicolas Zahn, Senior Project Manager at SDI lead the discussion on the DTL.

The expertise and high level of the panel allowed an enriching exchange and dialogue to understand further where China stands when it comes to digital trust. Here are some of our main takeaways from the panel:

  • Digital Trust is also of growing importance in China, particularly when it comes to AI use cases, mainly those about facial recognition. During the panel, it was shared that in 2021 the Whitepaper on Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence was issued by China Academy for Information and Communication, as the broader public is now starting to become aware of questions related to AI ethics.
  • For the Chinese market, categories of digital trust are weighted differently. For example, it was mentioned that cybersecurity and privacy are very important for Chinese people, and ever since the creation of the Cybersecurity Law, more attention has been given to these.
  • In China, the definition of Digital Trust is mainly market-based and closely related to government regulations, and therefore there is a bigger emphasis on cybersecurity. A trust label is perceived more as a compliance necessity. By contrast, for the Swiss participants, Digital Trust is a differentiator and a competitive advantage based on consumer demands and interests, adopting a full user-centered approach.
  • Regulations are not the only answer in the digital economy. There are more flexible and adaptable mechanisms to build trust. In this sense, labels can act as a complement to laws and regulations. However, experts in China envision different labels covering different aspects of digital services, which raises the question of the interoperability of labels and their feasibility.
  • There is a perceived need to put digital trust into perspective according to each sector. Industries may have different consensus or perspectives on the key elements of digital trust. Regarding this, for the development of the DTL, we anticipated the different perspectives that might exist around trust according to each sector and therefore the criteria catalogue considers a wide range of industries.
  • AI algorithms are the main concern in China. The biases and discrimination that can occur from these, their management and operability are gaining greater importance in China’s market with the ever-growing roll-out of AI systems, from facial recognition to autonomous cars.
  • Contextually, the general perception from experts is that Chinese people’s trust is high when it comes to government-run digital services, but lower regarding private business services.

Overall, Chinese people’s digital awareness is on the rise and efforts are underway to create certifications and standards (e.g. on trustworthy AI and facial recognition standards) in collaborative efforts between the government, industry think-tanks and experts.

Digital trust is becoming a growing force around the globe, and China is no exception. Nevertheless, contextual and cultural factors need to be taken into consideration to understand the approach and priorities related to the governance of the digital realm. However, digital ethics, trust and responsibility are becoming a common denominator in the universal language of digital standards.

Way Forward

For SDI, constant exchange of perspectives, information and knowledge are fundamental to keep innovating and developing the DTL. As the Label grows internationally, insights from experts from around the globe become very important to expand and refine our criteria. Therefore, we truly value Swissnex’s support in making this event possible and look forward to future events. Also, we are excited to continue the exchange of ideas and knowledge between Chinese experts and the Label Expert Committee (LEC), as their insights on Digital Trust are very helpful for the constant development of the DTL.