By Evgeniya Altukhova, SDG Lab

In 1991, the world was on the verge of a digital revolution. Technologies previously accessible only to governments and research institutions, such as personal computers, mobile networks, and, of course, the Internet, were about to end up in everyone’s homes. Fast forward to 2023, what started as a communication revolution to empower people with access to information is now a data, technological, and surveillance revolution.

In just over two decades, digital access became a given for many. Yet, 2.7 billion people – roughly one-third of the global population – remain unconnected to the Internet and cannot afford either a device or broadband services.

While states continue to dictate relations in the physical world, commercial interests and technology companies have taken over the virtual world. Both developed and developing nations now struggle to balance the benefits of digital technologies and risks posed by insufficient cybersecurity and disinformation. To this day, the digital space remains insufficiently governed, prompting urgent social, ethical, economic, and regulatory questions.

As underscored by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in Our Common Agenda, the digital domain is a global public good that should benefit everyone everywhere, while Internet access should become a basic human right. In his latest Policy Brief on a Global Digital Compact, the Secretary-General outlines a multi-stakeholder approach to ensure “open, free and secure digital future for all,” “one that is anchored in universal human rights and that enables the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

What the UN system has proposed so far

We do not lack platforms on digital cooperation. Currently, there are over 20 UN intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder digital cooperation bodies and forums working on digital-related issues and innovation.

In 1998, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) passed a resolution calling on the UN to convene a summit of world leaders to develop the emerging information society and utilize Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to bridge the global development divide. In 2003 and 2005, a World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) took place in Geneva, Switzerland, and Tunis, Tunisia, as a two-phase conference to define the issues, policies, and frameworks to tackle ICT to foster development, which became a critical moment in the history of the Internet.

Internet governance proved to be the most controversial issue during the WSIS and, as a result, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was established to facilitate a common understanding of how to maximize Internet opportunities and address risks and challenges that arise.

In July 2018, the Secretary-General convened a High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation to advance proposals to strengthen cooperation in the digital space among state and non-state actors and other relevant stakeholders. In its report titled, ‘The Age of Digital Interdependence,’ the diverse 20-member panel, co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, who served in their personal capacities, offered five sets of recommendations for the international community to optimize the use of technologies and mitigate risks.

In June 2020, following a multi-stakeholder consultative process with Member States and over 300 entities and organizations, the Secretary-General issued a report titled, ‘Roadmap for Digital Cooperation,’ to envisage action points to connect, respect, and protect the online world. The following year, the Secretary-General appointed a Special Envoy on Technology to help facilitate a multi-stakeholder policy dialogue on emerging technologies and guide the UN’s strategy on technology trends.

Global Digital Compact: Another attempt at codifying international digital cooperation

In the lead up to the Summit of the Future in 2024, where a new consensus on the future of humanity is expected to be forged, the Secretary-General set up a vast multi-stakeholder consultation on the digital cooperation track. The outcomes will be crystallized in a Global Digital Compact – an outline of shared principles, objectives, and actions to address current gaps in digital governance. In his Policy Brief, the Secretary-General lays out a variety of actions across major domains where multilateral digital cooperation is needed urgently:

  • Digital connectivity and capacity building: The proposal emphasizes the need to connect all people, especially vulnerable groups, to the Internet in affordable and meaningful ways. This includes incentivizing telecom operators to bring affordable connectivity to hard-to-reach areas and strengthening digital literacy and skills training, and committing to the accessibility of technical and training opportunities.
  • Digital cooperation to accelerate progress on the SDGs: The objective is to make targeted investments in digital public infrastructure and goods to catalyze SDG implementation, design frameworks for systems-wide SDG sustainability, and commit to having data support and informing SDG-related policymaking. Collaboration across borders for pooling data, artificial intelligence (AI) expertise, and infrastructure is also recommended to generate innovations.
  • Upholding human rights: The recommendation focuses on making human rights the foundation of a safe and non-discriminatory digital future, addressing gender challenges, and reaffirming international labor rights in the digital age. In practice it could mean establishing a digital human rights advisory mechanism and taking specific measures to protect and empower women, children, youth, older persons, Indigenous Peoples, and others.
  • An inclusive, open, secure, and shared Internet: The Secretary-General reiterates that the Internet is open and interconnected and calls for safeguarding its free and shared nature by reinforcing accountable multi-stakeholder governance. In other words, the commitment to refrain from disrupting, damaging, or destroying critical infrastructure remains important in the context of UN cyber-diplomacy processes.
  • Digital trust and security: The proposal calls for commitment to the responsible use of digital technologies, addressing harmful online content, and building capacity in cybersecurity. It suggests developing common norms, guidelines, and codes of conduct for information integrity. It also recommends mainstreaming gender guidelines in digital policies, as well as ensuring child impact assessments.
  • Data protection and empowerment: The Secretary-General recommends that Member States legally mandate protective measures for personal data and privacy and urges all stakeholders to enhance people’s agency and control over their own data.
  • Agile governance of AI and other emerging technologies: A global, multidisciplinary conversation on the application of AI technologies and AI-derived tools is long overdue. The proposal urges for the establishment, together with industry, of a global collaborative AI research and development effort, to make sure the design and use of AI tools align with our common human values and are guided by sector-based guidelines. It suggests establishing a high-level Advisory Body for regular review of development of AI governance.
  • Global digital commons: To keep up with the pace of technology, all stakeholders should develop and govern digital technologies in ways that enable sustainable development and anticipate potential risks. This, according to the Policy Brief, requires aligning international principles and frameworks with national measures and practices.

The Global Digital Compact builds on the principles that emerged from other UN processes, such as the 2005 Tunis Agenda for the Information Society. The Compact proposes an overarching vision underpinned by networked collaboration and agile arrangements across different agendas that could facilitate cooperation on complex and sensitive issues related to digital technologies, for example though tripartite engagements. Without creating new bureaucratic and rigid structures, the Compact could convene the Digital Cooperation Forum to support such tripartite initiatives, follow up on and assess the implementation of the Compact commitments, and provide space for transparent dialogue.

The way forward

A globally endorsed framework on cooperation in the digital space is an ambitious yet necessary document. Even though the UN, under the leadership of the Secretary-General, is only one actor in a complex global digital architecture, its mandate and role as the only global entity that can provide the necessary convening and facilitation platform are crucial. In so doing, it must prioritize: human- and human rights-centered approaches; anticipatory training of skills force; strong technical and ethical guardrails; and, of course, international and interdisciplinary collaboration guided by the priorities of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

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The International Geneva hosts over 40 actors leading on digital policy and digital governance and is uniquely positioned to provide expertise and guidance on digital cooperation. In 2022, the SDG Lab convened over 20 individuals and organizations, members of the Geneva SDG Community, to collectively outline ways to improve stakeholder collaboration in the digital space. As a result of a series of collective intelligence workshops, the Lab is finalizing a Participatory Guide for strengthening digital collaboration for the SDGs through an ecosystem approach. The guide provides direction for a step-by-step digitalization process and highlights the variety of roles different stakeholders could play.

Evgeniya Altukhova is Partnerships and Member States engagement advisor at the SDG Lab.

In preparation for the 2023 SDG Summit and the Summit of the Future in 2024, the UN Secretary-General is launching eleven policy briefs between March and July 2023, offering “concrete ideas” on how to advance Our Common Agenda. Timed accordingly, the SDG Knowledge Hub is publishing a series of policy briefs of its own, offering insights on the issue areas covered in these publications.