Digital Cooperation at the United Nations

14 October 2020 

By Yu Ping Chan, Senior Programme Officer/Team Leader, Digital Cooperation, Office of the Special Advisor to the Secretary-General

As we continue the conversation on how the international community should engage with data, we must also consider the broader context: the need for global steerage on digital technologies. Today, more than ever before, the international community must carefully examine and confront the world of digital technologies.

In the last 15 years, the percentage of Internet users globally has grown from 17 percent to 53 percent. By 2025, the number of devices connected to the Internet of Things could exceed 75 billion – nearly 10 times the number of people in the world. And through this growth of digital technologies, unprecedented volumes of data are being generated.

COVID-19 has made especially clear our dependence on technology, with millions of people worldwide having to work and learn from home. It has also reminded us that while the digital era has brought society many benefits, there are serious issues that persist and that the pandemic is exacerbating – such as growing digital divides, cyberthreats, and the threat to human rights online.

Despite the spread of digital technologies, there is still a significant gap, at the international policy level, in how governments and international organizations are approaching the digital domain. To date, the private sector and major technology companies are largely self-regulating on key issues of hate speech, cyberattacks, privacy and the use of personal data.

Moreover, political gridlock is at an all-time high with rising divides over tech regulation, taxation frameworks, and eroding digital trust. Technology is becoming a new front in great-power relations, creating new fractures and divisions.

Digital technologies are fundamental to our efforts to achieve our shared global objectives, particularly the Sustainable Development Goals. Technology can accelerate economic and social development in unprecedented ways – safe digital identification can address income inequality by unlocking government and financial services for millions of people; artificial intelligence can improve healthcare access by allowing personalized telemedicine and automated delivery of essential medicines; and 3D-printing can help promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

Yet, these benefits presume that access to digital technologies is universal and equally shared. Even before COVID-19 struck, however, the digital divide was stark. Almost half the world’s population – over 3.6 billion people – are still offline. The world’s COVID-19 experience shows how connectivity is an imperative—for basic information, health services, education and work—and today, the gap between those with access and those without has widened.

Addressing all of this requires global digital cooperation across borders, and between sectors, particularly prioritizing areas where there is shared global consensus and understanding.  Cooperation models of the past are no longer sufficient. In these models, governments only speak with governments; academics with academics; civil society with civil society; companies with companies; and then, after parties have agreed within a given community, they present a plan externally and then invite feedback from others.

We need to rethink our approach. The challenges of the 21st Century require common understanding, a shared vision of the future, and most importantly, joint action. This is the context in which the Secretary-General launched his Roadmap for Digital Cooperation this past June, following an extensive process of multi-stakeholder consultations that began with the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation.

Emphasizing the importance of multi-stakeholder approaches, the Roadmap calls for concrete action in eight areas:

  • Achieving universal connectivity
  • Recognizing and promoting digital public goods
  • Including the most vulnerable in the digital ecosystem
  • Building digital capacity across all countries
  • Ensuring the protection of human rights in the digital era
  • Supporting global cooperation on Artificial Intelligence
  • Promoting digital trust and security to advance the SDGs
  • Building a more effective architecture for digital cooperation

 

The Roadmap is the Secretary General’s call to Connect those who are not yet connected, Respect human rights and agency online, and Protect those vulnerable to online harms and threats. The Office of the Under-Secretary-General is now working with key United Nations entities and all stakeholders to take forward the important work called for in Secretary-General’s Roadmap.

Closing the digital divide is fundamental to all of this. The Secretary-General has called for digital technology to be a “great enabler and equalizer.” Especially as we seek to build back from this pandemic, we must recognize those who have been left behind by digital technologies – those unconnected, and those excluded. If we are to “build back better”, we must seize this opportunity to build back “digitally” to create a more inclusive and equitable world.

The international community is at an inflection point. We cannot reap the full benefits of the digital age without mobilizing the global cooperation needed to mitigate its potential harms. The international community must rise to the challenge and collectively take action to support greater connectivity, inclusion, and the protection of digital human rights, trust, and security. In seeking to do this, we must also listen to the voices of those most profoundly impacted by the actions of the present: the youth.

This is why on 23 September 2020, UNICEF and Generation Unlimited, the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations Development Programme, and the Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General, on Digital Cooperation, convened a High-Level Digital Cooperation event, where Presidents and Prime Ministers, top executives from tech giants and the private sector, as well as technology luminaries, came together to respond to the Secretary-General's call to “Connect, Respect and Protect” us all, with a focus on young people and future generations. A recording of this recent event is available here.

And to learn more about the UN’s Digital Cooperation efforts, please follow us on Twitter. We invite all to join us in our collective efforts to further global digital cooperation.

“Future generations will judge whether the present generation seized the opportunities presented by the age of digital interdependence. The time to act is now.” - Antonio Guterres

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.