Privacy safeguards are essential for digital identity projects, and blanket internet shutdowns violate human rights, the UN Secretary General said in a report on digital cooperation in September. Last June, a UN panel headed by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma laid out some objectives for digital cooperation on the international level. The High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, appointed by the UN Secretary General, laid out broad goals to be achieved in the coming years. Here is a summary of each of those recommendations, and the gist of what should be done on that front, per a roadmap by the Secretary General released a year after the report was released, where he made the observations on digital identity projects and internet shutdowns.
The roadmap or the preceding UN report has been endorsed by Lacalle Pou, the President of Uruguay; Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of Turkey; Vargas Maldonado, president of the Dominican Republic; President Rebelo de Sousa of Portugal; and President Egils Levits of Latvia. While India did not participate in discussions this year on some of the recommendations, the Indian Software Product Industry Roundtable (iSPIRT) participated in a roundtable discussion on Digital Public Goods.
Recommendations and roadmap
What follows are recommendations from 2019, and the points underneath represent the roadmap outlined by the UN Secretary General in May.
Every adult should have internet access by 2030, with safe and sufficient access to banking and health services.
- Cost of infrastructure: Developing countries face an enormous cost issue when building fibre optic cables, and that this needs to be addressed.
- Better competition needed: Market conditions should allow for competitive internet pricing. Connectivity projects such as those to provide internet to all schools should be taken up.
- Emerging technology: Emerging technology can be leveraged to finance the development of the internet.
Digital public goods recommendation: There should be a “multi-stakeholder alliance, involving the UN” to share and pool digital public goods and data sets, in a privacy-respecting way.
- Digital exchanges can help in disease outbreaks: The 2014–15 Ebola outbreak was contained due to aggregated data and shared information. It is necessary to push digital public goods that are not limited by language, copyright, or other constraints that limit access.
- Existing initiatives: The Digital Public Goods Alliance and the Global Data Access Framework are recently announced steps towards achieving this recommendation.
The UN and national governments should work with civil society and the private sector to push for equal digital access to women and marginalised groups.
- Bridging gender divides on the internet: Bridging gender divides in internet access is urgently required, and one step in this direction is the forthcoming “multi-stakeholder action coalition on innovation and technology for gender equality”, to be led by the governments of Mexico and France in partnership with UN Women.
- Multifaceted accessibility: Accessibility should be a focus along with “addressing intersectionality, social norms, language barriers, structural barriers and risks”.
- Pay attention to the excluded: More attention needs to be paid to groups who can’t participate in discussions related to digital cooperation, such as “migrants, or those facing emergency and conflict-affected situations”.
With a focus on gender, metrics on digital inclusiveness should be agreed on and urgently measured internationally.
- Need for more advocacy on metrics: Some guidance on these metrics has been developed through the ITU, “though it would benefit from wider advocacy”.
“Help desks” should be formed at the regional and global levels to help countries understand digital issues.
- Scaling capacity building: Capacity-building is too often “supply based” and not “needs based”, and therefore there needs to be “greater coherence and coordination in capacity-building efforts; and a concerted effort at scaling up solutions”.
- Existing solutions for capacity: The ITU and the UN Development Programme are conducting a “mapping” exercise to see what solutions already exist to this recommendation and what gaps need to be filled.
Human rights and agency
The Secretary General should review applicability of existing international accords around human rights on emerging digital technologies, and social media companies should work with governments and civil society to respond effectively to human rights concerns.
- Rights and technology: The impact of human rights on digital technologies needs to be considered, and the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights may be useful in this regard.
- Internet shutdowns are considered to be violative of human rights. Other solutions to issues like misinformation need to be found.
- Data protection: Social media companies are incentivised to collect a lot of user data for providing their services. To support data protection, this financing model needs to be changed.
- Digital identity:
- It is “problematic that some digital identity programmes have been designed outside the frameworks of privacy and data protection”. Privacy safeguards are critical for these programmes to achieve their goals.
- Identity systems nonetheless have potential, and initiatives like Identification for Development and the UN Legal Identity Task Force have been established to achieve this.
- Surveillance and facial recognition: Surveillance technologies can lead to systemic discrimination and profiling, among other human rights violations. Legislation is needed to prevent “unlawful or unnecessary surveillance”.
- Online harassment: Women and girls are 27 times more likely to be harassed online than men, and businesses and governments need to make sure the internet is a safe space. “Transparent and accountable content governance frameworks” are needed that “avoid incentives for overly restrictive moderation practices and protect the most vulnerable”.
Artificial intelligence and accountability
Algorithmic AI systems should be designed to be explainable and accountable to ethical standards, and “Life and death decisions should not be delegated to machines.”
- AI policymaking not unified or representative: There is a lack of representation in global discussions on AI and accountability — which are also disjointed and not unified. UNESCO’s work on AI ethics is part of what the UN can do around this issue to ensure representation.
- Mitigating AI harm to human rights: There needs to be a “broader, more systematic attempt to harness the potential and mitigate the risk of artificial intelligence”. AI should not be used to undermine human rights.
There should be a “Global Commitment on Digital Trust and Security to shape a shared vision, identify attributes of digital stability, elucidate and strengthen the implementation of norms for responsible uses of technology, and propose priorities for action”.
- Need more CERTs: Data breaches, COVID-19 related misinformation and terrorist content online underline the need for greater trust online. More countries need Computer Emergency Response Teams.
- Existing initiatives for trust and online stability: Some initiatives to further online trust: Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise, the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace and the Contract for the Web. Broader UN initiatives that are not completely technology related are attempting to address these issues as well.
- Critical infrastructure needs protection: “Critical infrastructure, [such as those] supporting access to food, water, housing, energy, health care and transportation, need[s] to be safeguarded”.
Global Digital Cooperation
The panel recommended that the UN “develop updated mechanisms for global digital cooperation”, and that the Secretary General appoint a “Technology Envoy”. It added, “We support a multi-stakeholder “systems” approach for cooperation and regulation that is adaptive, agile, inclusive and fit for purpose for the fast-changing digital age.”
- Extant systems too distributed: “Existing digital cooperation architecture has become highly complex and diffused but not necessarily effective, and global discussions and processes are often not inclusive enough”.
- Internet Governance Forum Plus: The Internet Governance Forum is a periodically held multistakeholder discussion that was first convened after the World Summit on the Information Society. IGF discussions are the main technology and internet policy forum held under UN auspices. The panel had recommended an IGF “Plus”, which would “comprise an Advisory Group, Cooperation Accelerator, Policy Incubator and Observatory and Help Desk”. Each of these elements would work in tandem to advise governments on internet and technology policy, and develop policies as and when appropriate. An IGF Trust Fund would be formed to finance these new elements.
- Other models: Three models are being discussed at the UN level to implement this recommendation: the IGF plus model discussed above, “a distributed co-governance architecture and a digital commons architecture”. The Secretary General notes that while there has been support for IGF Plus, some stakeholders are pushing to consider these two alternate models as well.
The distributed co-governance architecture relies on leveraging existing institutions across several fields, whereas the digital commons architecture would be a wider system that attempts to “synergise efforts by governments, civil society and businesses to ensure that digital technologies promote the SDGs and to address risks of social harm.”
- Report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, June 2019
- Report of the Secretary-General Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, May 2020