Report: Labels and Certifications for the Digital World

Nicolas Zahn • May 2021

A new report by the Swiss Digital Initiative takes stock of the global Digital Trust ecosystem. The report maps relevant initiatives and compiles learnings on the challenges and success factors for a Digital Trust Label. Based on the report, the Digital Trust ecosystem needs more cooperation, and the Swiss Digital Initiative aims to bring the relevant actors together in Geneva.

Trust in digital technologies is of ever-increasing importance as is now once more demonstrated during the Covid pandemic with the discussions surrounding contact tracing apps and vaccination passports. Already since 2019, the Swiss Digital Initiative is working on promoting digital trust. One initiative is the creation of a “Digital trust Label” (DTL). As Doris Leuthard, President SDI explains: «Among other activities, a label can be one very concrete measure to build digital trust. We need to give users more information and transparency so they can make decisions to opt-in or out for a particular digital service.»

The label is intended to provide information in an easy-to-understand language for users about whether, for example, data protection is being observed or whether an algorithm is making decisions in the background.

Report on the international labelling initiatives: Instead of fragmentation, more cooperation is needed

Since the beginning of the project in 2019, the SDI has monitored international developments in this field and has been in active exchanges with like-minded organizations. With the growing awareness of the importance of digital trust, more than 50 national and international initiatives are dealing with certification, the development of criteria and labels for the responsible use of new technologies. A new report by the SDI now provides a comprehensive overview of the dynamic digital trust ecosystem. The compiled knowledge should form the basis for better cooperation and knowledge sharing. Instead of fragmentation, more cooperation is needed to define internationally valid labels and standards.

Key Findings from the Report “Labels for the Digital World – Mapping the International Digital Trust Landscape”
The SDI report focuses on initiatives and projects that propose some kind of auditing and/or certification mechanism for promoting as well as certifying responsible and ethical digital tools and services, in particular those initiatives taking the form of a label.

SDI took a closer look at 12 of the most relevant initiatives and analyzed success factors as well as similarities and differences compared to the Swiss Digital Trust Label.

The following factors were identified as relevant to success:

  • The label has to be known by its target users;
  • It should be supported by a strong and well known organization;
  • It has to convey a general message, with details and complexity being handled in the background;
  • The governance of the labeling body has to be legitimate;
  • The way the label organization is funded needs to be transparent and understandable for outsiders.

A comparison with other initiatives furthermore revealed three major types of challenges:

  1. Challenges linked to the nature of digital services: most digital services rely on a complex architecture and evolve in very dynamic environments. It proves complex to track these changes and keep pace with public expectations.
  2. Challenges linked to the business model of the labeling process (funding then project, without setting bad incentives in place): labelling organizations must be able to rely on adequate resources for providing the necessary infrastructure and services beyond label development without impairing their impartiality.
  3. Challenges linked to the missing traction among actors behind initiatives, companies and consumers/users: developing a trustmark is a multiyear investment, that requires setting standards and creating a sustainable audit system resulting in a brand that gathers users trust. Efforts in this regard must remain continuous beyond the development phase and ties with potential users and companies interested in having products labeled must be strong.

Leveraging the “Digital Trust Ecosystem” in Geneva

To address these challenges, better cooperation and exchange between these initiatives is needed. To this end, SDI aims to formalize ties with like-minded organizations. Being based in Geneva, with its international organizations, human rights and international governance tradition, SDI is the ideal place to bring together the initiatives to realize their shared vision, exchange best practices and learnings. Plans include intensified collaboration throughout the year, a common communications platform, and a larger event at the end of the year with all initiatives to go beyond declarations about ethical values and principles and focus on how to make them become tangible in society.

The full report can be downloaded here