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Digital governance in International Geneva in 2023: What to expect and how to respond

Authors: Jovan Kurbalija and Stephanie Borg Psaila

Predicting the future is a tricky affair, but existing patterns provide good clues on what to expect, and how to respond.

In general, it’s a gloomy outlook for global geopolitics, the world’s economy, and the climate crisis. In the digital realm, fragmentation of the internet is almost certain; the online space is more unsafe than ever; and the digital divide shows little signs of narrowing. As the UN Secretary-General has just warned in Davos, ‘Our world is plagued by a perfect storm on a number of fronts.’

International Geneva, which will be impacted by global issues and plays a major role in tackling them, will need to move away from the ‘business as usual’ approach. Clarity in thinking and speaking will be needed. The current crisis should not be allowed to overshadow our thinking on how to shape our future.  

1. WHAT TO EXPECT

(a) Geopolitical tensions will impact negotiations in Geneva

Technology is at the centre of several geopolitical tensions. The cold war in trade between the USA and China is playing out mainly in the semiconductor and data industries. 

Semiconductors are used to power computers and electronic devices, and are therefore vital for developments in AI and cutting-edge technologies. The USA has placed export controls on Chinese chip companies, which is separating China from the global industry it once dominated. In December 2022, China initiated a formal dispute complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO). The USA’s reply is that the export (and import) controls were put in place as a national security measure.  

WTO e1674649480932

Tensions around the data flows are more longstanding but less hostile. So far, there have been two main camps: those in favour of unfettered flows of data (the USA is a strong proponent), and those who prefer localising – or storing within a nation’s own territory – the data generated by its citizens (China and Russia are strong proponents). Although many other countries are involved in negotiations, the US-China trade war could reverberate across data governance negotiations, especially at the WTO and ITU.

Read more on digital geopolitics and geoeconomics in 2023.

(b) Deeper discussions on values, ethics, and human rights 

The rapid digitalisation of society has led to challenging ethical questions. Are human rights at the core of emerging technologies or an afterthought? Does the private sector’s bottom line respect society’s core values or trample them? What safeguards are in place to ensure that AI developments are beneficial – and not detrimental – to society?

HRC e1674650466935

Every time a new technology is released (right now, that’s content generators like ChatGPT), fresh questions are raised. Thus, we can expect these issues to grow in relevance at Human Rights Council discussions and side events, and at other human rights-based forums throughout the year.

Read more on digital rights in 2023.

(c) A crunch year for negotiations on commerce and trade

Speaking of the WTO. In 2019, a subset of WTO members came together at the Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) on e-commerce with the aim of reaching a binding agreement covering both classic trade topics, such as market access and trade facilitation, as well as digital policy issues, such as data flows and localisation, online privacy, cybersecurity, and spam. 

Although the JCI negotiating process still faces the opposition of mainly developing countries such as India and South Africa, the process made headway in 2022 with a new negotiating document. It’s now crunch time for the JSI, which will need to bridge positions on issues that made it into the new consolidated document.  

Any agreement reached by the 87-strong group, which accounts for 90% of global trade, will have considerable global implications for e-commerce regulation.  

Read more on digital economy in 2023.

2. HOW TO RESPOND

(a) New leadership = fresh thinking on digital issues

Three international organisations in Geneva are poised for a period of fresh and future-oriented thinking on digital issues, thanks to the experience of their incoming leaders. 

Doreen Bogdan Martin

Heading ITU as of 1 January 2023, Doreen Bogdan-Martin has had a remarkable leadership career in global telecommunications policy, no doubt required as countries negotiate burning issues related to data flows and standards. She is also the first woman to hold ITU’s top job. 

Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNCHR) since October 2022, coordinated the follow-up to the UN Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda, an ambitious vision of how to tackle present-day global challenges. His long career in advancing human rights will bring fresh dynamism to an institution that will need to tackle questions about the core values of humanity in the face of the massive growth of Big Tech.

Volker Turk

Mirjana Spoljaric Egger

Mirjana Spoljaric Egger took up the top position at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in October 2022, at a delicate time for humanitarian action in times of conflict. She’s a diplomat by profession, with a deep understanding of the rapid digitalisation of society – an excellent background for managing an interplay between digital and humanitarian dynamics. 

The three of them can contribute a lot to the vibrant digital scene in Geneva as discussions advance on both practical policy issues and future developments shaped increasingly by AI and digitalisation.

(b) Embracing digital as an integral part of the work of international organisations

The ‘e-’ prefix we’re so familiar with is disappearing. E-commerce and e-trade are now firmly part of commerce and trade; e-health is a significant part of health. The same goes for ‘cyber’ and ‘digital’. The lines are so blurred that digital has become mainstream in multilateral negotiations at IOs, including at the World Health Organization (dealing with health), World Trade Organization (dealing with trade), ICRC (dealing with humanitarian issues), human rights bodies, and many others.

International organisations will experience this mainstreaming even more strongly. Digital issues will permeate work programmes and agendas without any explicit mention. Technology will undoubtedly continue increasing its impact in shaping the work of IOs and other actors.

This is happening not only in Geneva. The priorities of the Swedish presidency of the EU Council, for instance, have not singled out digital issues – rather, digital is mainstreamed into traditional policy issues, from security and trade to human rights.

(c) Lucem futuri: A lesson from Geneva’s enlightenment period

With its roots in Geneva – in particular, through the teachings of Voltaire and Rousseau – the age of enlightenment embodied respect for human life, dignity, creativity, and spirituality. Dubbed the ‘age of reason’, this period produced rigorous scientific, intellectual, and philosophical discourse.

Today, those same values are in jeopardy. Trust is quickly eroding; human autonomy is being challenged by AI systems; human creativity is being rendered obsolete.

It’s time for humanity to develop a new social contract that addresses some of the core issues of human existence and predicaments, as the UN Secretary-General called for emphatically in his report Our Common Agenda. Time for us to rekindle the lucem futuri (light of the future). 

As we start building a new digital social contract, we should keep the core values of humanity firmly in mind. These values can bring together our historical, cultural, and spiritual traditions. They are the common thread that can reunite humanity in the face of faster technological developments ahead of us.

Read more on tech and philosophy in Geneva.

The Geneva Internet Platform: All things digital governance in the heart of Geneva

At the Geneva Internet Platform, the next few months will be packed with just-in-time analyses, training, and dialogues on digital policy, with a focus on Geneva-based processes. 

The Digital Watch observatory (dig.watch) will continue monitoring the latest updates and presenting cutting-edge research. The Geneva Dialogue on Responsible Behaviour in Cyberspace, now in its third phase, will leverage the unique setting of international Geneva to continue the global conversation on the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders in cyberspace. 

Upcoming courses on digital policy will help diplomats and policymakers gain new skills and insight into how to navigate the fast-changing environment. 

Sign up to receive regular updates from the GIP.

25 January 2023
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