Can the UN Roadmap on Digital Cooperation Improve our Digital Future?

The new proposals are timely with the world at a critical inflection point for technology governance, as responses to the ongoing pandemic have fast-forwarded digitalization across all sectors.

Expert comment Published 12 June 2020 Updated 25 November 2022 3 minute READ
Attendees photograph the Massive Curve of Nature display of 250 curved screens at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, USA. Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images.

Attendees photograph the Massive Curve of Nature display of 250 curved screens at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, USA. Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images.

Within the space of just a few months, the worldwide health crisis has accentuated gaps in connectivity and underscored the deep fragmentation of responses and approaches to technology deployment and adoption. And numerous processes and entities have already emerged raising concerns around this fragmentation, as well as effectiveness and inclusivity.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and World Economic Forum (WEF) have both set up new units to facilitate governance efforts while, in response to intensifying public pressure, ‘big tech’ initiated a series of multi-stakeholder alliances such as the Partnership on AI, the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace and the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism.

But none of these carry the legitimacy that comes - even in difficult times for multilateralism - from the global umbrella of the United Nations (UN). However, despite significant contributions by UN actors on human rights online, the creation of the multi-stakeholder Internet Governance Forum, working groups on cyber security norms and other UN-driven initiatives, the UN itself has struggled to match the rapid advances in technology capabilities and adoption.

Perhaps this is inevitable, given the sheer scale and complexity of the challenge combined with institutional and capacity challenges the organization faces, as well as ongoing geopolitical tensions.

Welcome change of pace and ambition

But despite such challenges, the unveiling of its Roadmap for Digital Cooperation by the UN secretary-general shows a welcome change in pace and ambition, responding to recommendations by a High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation on the future of global technology governance.

The roadmap lays out a series of concrete steps and potential mechanisms for global digital cooperation, including the establishment of several new coalitions and alliances. And it also clearly identifies some of the critical gaps in the way global technology governance is developed, including a lack of common metrics and definitions.

As the document notes, there are currently no ‘baselines on the fundamental level of digital connectivity that individuals need to access the online space’. Referencing the SDGs, the roadmap promises to support efforts to track and monitor progress, including universal targets and metrics on digital connectivity, as well as a definition of “affordability” for internet pricing. It also calls for support towards the development of annual ‘national scorecards’ on digital inclusion.

The roadmap also sees the UN re-assert its normative power, because it recognizes the fundamental complexity of the digital landscape, and the consequent importance of creating a ‘common language’ for multiple stakeholders, including under-represented actors such as smaller and/or developing countries, civil society and non-for-profit organizations.

It advocates for a common affirmative model that promotes digital public goods such as open source software, open data and open standards, it seeks to align visions for digital security, and it firmly underscores the application of international human rights law in the digital space.

In persistently articulating the political, civic and economic benefits associated with a more open digital sphere, the roadmap highlights the perils of abusive technology-driven surveillance, internet shutdowns and online harassment, emphasizing the responsibilities of both governments and technology companies.

Its warning to digital platforms on privacy issues echoes both public concerns and the EU’s emerging stance that ‘the current financing model for social media platforms effectively encourages the collection of personal data for commercial purposes, so that content and advertising can be more effectively tailored to individuals’ consumption patterns. Changes to this model will need to be considered in order to reverse the trend’.

While the secretary-general aims to appoint a technology envoy and set up a number of new UN-led multi-stakeholder initiatives - including on both AI and digital inclusion - the ambition of the UN playing a centralizing and coherence-building role in global technology governance has to contend with the reality of profoundly differing approaches between democratic and authoritarian governments.

This is evident in the roadmap’s approach to global architecture for digital governance, in that it does not expand on the rather broad suggestions made by the High Level Panel. The panel offered three alternative models: a strengthened and enhanced ‘Internet Governance Forum Plus’, a distributed co-governance architecture that ‘decouples the design of digital norms from their implementation and enforcement’, and a digital commons architecture that would treat the digital world as a global commons issue requiring joint stewardship.

The roadmap seems to park this core question by simply noting that discussions among relevant stakeholders are still ongoing. However the secretary-general does commit to making the Internet Governance Forum more responsive and outcome-oriented, and the report indicates some appetite for piloting co-governance models at either national or regional level.

Most notably, the roadmap is vocal on one of the fundamental shortcomings of today’s global technology governance - the lack of inclusivity. Developing countries are largely absent from or not well-represented in international digital governance forums and, as highlighted in Chatham House’s ongoing Inclusive Governance Initiative conversations, the ability of civil society actors to engage in the venues open to them is severely hampered by cost, expertise and networks.

The fact that a number of the doadmap ‘champions’ and ‘key constituents’ are under-represented actors such as smaller and developing countries and NGOS, gives hope for a more inclusive and diverse approach in the future. But delivering on capacity-building will be key and so the roadmap’s emphasis on this is welcome.

In a world in flux, which is increasingly digitalized and fragmented, the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation is one of the most ambitious and far-reaching attempts so far to provide a universal affirmative vision of the digital realm - one that is open, safe and rooted in human agency and human rights. But realising that vision requires a delicate marrying of power and representation.