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UN secretary general calls for global digital cooperation

Antonio Guterres launches roadmap for digital cooperation and calls for world leaders to come together to “connect, respect and protect people in the digital age”

United Nations (UN) secretary general Antonio Guterres has called for global cooperation to harness the opportunity brought by digital technology and address digital instability and inequality.

Speaking at the launch of the UN’s Roadmap for digital cooperation, Guterres said digital technology has “enormous potential for positive change”, but it can also “magnify existing fault lines and worsen economic and other inequalities”.

He added that the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has “magnified the many benefits and harms of the digital world”.

“Technology is enabling the lifesaving work of healthcare providers, allowing businesses to operate remotely, educating our children and connecting us with friends and family,” said the secretary general. “But we have also seen technology gravely misused. Hate speech, discrimination and abuse are on the march in digital spaces.

“Life-threatening cyber attacks on hospital systems threaten to disrupt life-saving care. We are at a critical point for technology governance. Digital connectivity is indispensable, both to overcome the pandemic and for a sustainable and inclusive recovery.

“If we do not come together now around using digital technology for good, we will lose a significant opportunity to manage its impact, and we could see further fragmentation of the internet, to the detriment of all.”

The UN roadmap aims to “connect, respect and protect” people in the digital age, and Guterres sees the UN as a facilitator and a platform to mobilise partnerships and coalitions on a global level, between governments, academia, industry and citizens.

The plan sets out eight main focus areas, including digital connectivity and digital public goods. The report said that although 93% of the world’s population live within physical reach of mobile or internet services, only 53.6% of them use the internet, and in the least developed countries, that figure drops to 19%, leaving a total of 3.6 billion people without internet access globally.

The UN aims to ensure that everyone in the world has safe and affordable access to the internet by 2030.

One of the main barriers is that installing traditional broadband connections are costly, and some countries struggle to finance this. Another issue is market dynamics, where the least developed countries have lower purchasing power. Digital skills are also a barrier to the adoption of digital.

A central challenge to building an inclusive digital economy is that there are no baselines for the fundamental level of digital connectivity that individuals need to access the online space, said the report. “Identifying such baselines, with flexibility to update them as necessary in the light of technology changes, would enable the development of targets and metrics,” it added.

Access to digital public goods is also a challenge. The report said access to digital solutions is “often limited through copyright regimes and proprietary systems”.

“Most existing digital public goods are not easily accessible because they are often unevenly distributed in terms of the language, content and infrastructure required to access them,” it said, but added that multi-stakeholder initiatives such the Digital Public Goods Alliance and the Global Data Access Framework are working to develop the infrastructure to allow the scaling up of data to “speed up the process for creating quality digital public goods”.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the urgency of ensuring people are not excluded from digital, said the report. Access still remains uneven on a global level, and the digital divide reflects, as well as amplifies, the already existing social and economic inequalities.

“The gender gap in global internet use is a stark example – in two out of every three countries, more men use the internet than women,” said the report. “This gender gap has been growing, rather than narrowing, standing at 17% in 2019, and was even larger in the least developed countries, at 43%.

“The Covid-19 pandemic underscores the urgency in bridging these divides. Digital tools have been a lifeline for millions of people. Without prompt action, there is a risk of layering the current barriers to digital inclusion on top of existing obstacles to development. In looking towards post-Covid-19 economic support for developing countries, digital tools have to be leveraged for these countries, as well as under-served groups, so that recovery efforts build an inclusive digital infrastructure that would accelerate progress for all.”

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There is also a huge need for digital capacity-building, particularly in developing countries, said the report. It is estimated that there will be 230 million digital jobs in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030, but this would “require 650 million training opportunities by 2030”.

Digital capacity-building has historically been supply driven, rather than needs based, and there is often insufficient investment in this, the report said. It called for a greater coherence and coordination in efforts to scale up capacity building.

Guterres said he also aims to launch “a broad multi-stakeholder network to promote holistic, inclusive approaches to digital capacity-building for sustainable development, including a new joint facility for digital capacity development”.

The report said digital technologies are “too often used for surveillance, repression, censorship and online harassment, especially of vulnerable people and human rights defenders”, and Guterres called for these technologies to instead be used to advocate, defend and exercise rights. “Greater efforts are needed to develop further guidance on how human rights standards apply in the digital age,” he said.

The report also highlighted the issue of data protection. It said that in 2019, more than 7,000 data breaches were recorded, which exposed a total of more than 15 billion records.

“Effective personal data protection and the protection of the right to privacy in line with internationally agreed standards are imperative,” said the report.

Broader cyber security is also a challenge. The coronavirus pandemic “has exposed the collective vulnerability to disruption and abuse”, it added.

“In one week in April 2020, there were over 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to the disease reported by a single email provider, in addition to more than 240 million Covid-19-related daily spam messages.”

Surveillance technologies

Surveillance technologies have also led to serious privacy breaches, said the report. When used in accordance with human rights laws, surveillance technologies can be an effective law enforcement tool, but there have been reports of “targeted communications surveillance and facial recognition software that could result in human rights violations and lead to arbitrary arrests or detentions and violation of the right to peaceful protest”, it said.  

Proper digital identity measures are also lacking. The report found that not having recognised identification has led to more than one1 billion people worldwide not having access to basic goods and services.

“A ‘good’ digital identity that preserves people’s privacy and control over their information can empower them to gain access to these much-needed services,” it said.

The report also highlights the use of artificial intelligence (AI), which has become one of the most sought-after technologies in recent times. It said that although the interest in AI is “overwhelmingly high”, there is also a gap in international coordination, collaboration and governance.

“There is currently a lack of representation and inclusiveness in global discussions,” it said. “Developing countries are largely absent from, or not well represented in, most prominent forums on artificial intelligence, despite having a significant opportunity to benefit from it for their economic and social development.”

It added that without a broader, more systematic approach to harnessing the potential of AI, opportunities to using it for the public good are being missed. 

Commenting on the report, James Roscoe, UK acting deputy permanent representative to the UN, said the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated “that digital is not just an add-on, but underpins so much of what we do today”.

He added: “Certainly from our perspective, the tracing apps, the public health advice, the research cooperation, the support for businesses and the need to assure communication and accurate communication information, all require good digital infrastructure.

“But we’ve also heard how many still do not have the benefits of these digital technologies. This crisis should refocus all of our attention on bridging the digital divide and connecting the unconnected.”

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