Submitted by Shivangi Vipul Pradhan, Research Intern.
Digital technology serves as a double-edged sword, for it has enormous potential like the ability to diagnose a virus and its elements in the healthcare sector, medium for the e-commerce sector, however at the same time if not regulated it can be misused to spread hate crimes, phishing, digital media manipulation and other malpractices.
In light of the recent COVID 19 pandemic, although the utility of digital media has been highlighted in terms of connectivity, yet it has also brought forth the issue of increasing economic, gender and age inequality. To address these problems, the Secretary-General convened a High-level Panel on ‘Digital Cooperation’ aimed at uniting the efforts of Governments, private entities, international organs and civil society in the digital space. The Panel compromising of esteemed 20 members had issued its preliminary report “The Age of Digital Interdependence” in 2019. Subsequently, the report had been circulated amongst member countries and after receiving and incorporating recommendations it has been submitted in June 2020. The report serves as a roadmap for member states to follow and is built upon the pillars of co-dependence, equitable responsibility of all stakeholders to maximise the benefits of technology.
The Panel has devised five recommendations which countries can utilise as guidelines to balance the use of digital technologies while minimising the threats:
1. Build an inclusive digital economy and society
2. Develop human and institutional capacity
3. Protect human rights and human agency
4. Protect digital trust, security and stability
5. Foster global digital cooperation
Key areas of considerations for action
I. Global Connectivity: The Panel has acknowledged the disparity in the usage of internet connection and statistics illustrate that while 87% of the population of developed nations uses the internet, only a trifling proportion of 19% use the internet in the developing nations. Undeniably, the high cost of broadband, low purchasing power, lack of skills and lack of incentive on part of providers to make the service cheaper are some of the factors of this digital divide. Striking directly at the ability to carry out their livelihood, especially in the recent times of the crisis, the Panel has recommended that assessment be conducted to determine a baseline which can be used to develop affordable connectivity plans. Moreover, meetings between financial experts to be convened to discuss financial platforms and investment. The Panel also recommends promotion of small-scale regional internet providers and to support new models to boost connectivity like GIGS initiative. Also, government policies of tax exemption and incentive schemes can be beneficial.
II. Digital Public Goods: There has been a significant reduction in the information available to the public on the internet owing to copyright and proprietary law and the existing available information is also not free from difficulties because of the uneven distribution, variance in language and accessibility. To reap the benefits of internet connectivity, the Panel emphasises that member states and stakeholders promote open-source software, open data, open content and artificial intelligence models which adhere to their national and international laws concerning privacy. Moreover, the Panel has also formed the ‘Digital Public Goods Alliance’ to work on this initiative.
III. Digital Inclusion: The report highlights that the “people left behind are those who can least afford it.” Essentially, the most vulnerable groups include migrants who are on a move, women who due to harassment faced online tend to use digital media less, older people and persons with disabilities. Therefore, there is an urgent need to bridge these differences not only through physical accessibility but design it around the needs of all people- factoring in disabilities, language and structural barriers and local content. This can be achieved through the collection of metrics, data collection and cooperation between governments, private institutions and concerned stakeholders.
IV. Digital Capacity Building: It is critical that to achieve holistic success in digitalisation, it is crucial to impart skill development and effective training particularly in the developing nations. The drawback being the insufficient funds to carry out such a project and that ‘digital-capacity building’ has been more ‘supply-driven’ than ‘needs-based.’ Individualised and tailor-made programmes to suit the needs of every nation should be formulated. Additionally, the panel has recommended expansion and building on the initiates undertaken by the UNDP and ITU to promote the endeavour.
V. Digital Human Rights: Majority of the human right keep with advancing treaties were signed before the digitisation era and fail to regulate the advancing spread of disinformation, cyberbullying, harassment, data and privacy breaches. The Panel recommends that this lacuna in law can be dealt with by introducing enforcement mechanisms such as independent data protection authorities, systemic change to data collection model and decentralised data storage ensuring that individual’s identity and personal information are not misused rather than advocating blanket internet bans. Furthermore, the report has stated that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights will conduct ‘impact assessments’ in the use of digital technologies and develop a guidance system on ‘human rights due diligence.’ The panel has also urged member nations to keep human rights at the centre while devising new technology, digital and information technology laws.
VI. Artificial Intelligence: The report suggests that although the scope of Artificial intelligence is exceedingly high, it suffers from certain challenges. Firstly, it has been pointed out that developing nations are not adequately represented in the discussions despite having plenty to benefit from. Secondly, there is a lack of coordination outside the existing group and the United States and presently, there is no unifying platform to collaborate separate initiatives undertaken. To overcome these challenges, the secretary-general has suggested a formation of a “multi-stakeholder advisory board on global artificial intelligence cooperation.” Such a forum will facilitate the exchange of ideas on artificial intelligence.
VII. Digital Trust and Security: Increasing malware attacks have cost trillions of dollars to corporations and hampered economic productivity. Areas like healthcare, food, housing, energy and other core societal functions which make use of digital technologies need to be protected.
VIII. Global Digital Cooperation: There is a lack of global digital cooperation and subsequently there have been suggestions for strengthening the Internet Governance Forum. Emphasis has been put on having a focused agenda, structured meetings and a follow-up mechanism in place.
The Panel has in their report stated a detailed action plan regarding the comprehensive range of issues, however, the effectiveness of the recommendations can be gauged only against the changes it can achieve like for example to reduce the inequality gap widened with the digital technology. The report serves as a guiding plan which should be used by member states to initiate the actions enlisted. Moreover, while some of the directives can be implemented in a short period like the introduction of the metric or baseline system to create an affordable connectivity plan and other government increments, other initiatives like the cooperation of member states and striving towards an open-source internet model would require more time and stakeholder initiative.
The Report can be accessed at: