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From digital independence to digital interdependence

Published on 14 June 2019
Updated on 05 April 2024

An analytical summary of the Final Report of the UN High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation

From digital independence to digital interdependenceThe report of the High-level Panel in Digital Cooperation, The age of digital interdependence, has historical relevance. It marks the end of the era of digital independence, proclaimed by John Perry Barlow in 1996. Barlow argued that traditional law and governance do not apply to the digital space.

For a long time, he inspired many writings and wider thinking on digital law and politics. But the more society became digitalised and more intricately intertwined with technology, the more people questioned whether ‘digital’ can be separated from law and governments. Today, there is unanimity that existing laws apply online in human rights, security, and other fields.

And so, how should society deal with this growing digital interdependence?

This is precisely what the Panel’s report tackles. It invites us to start a debate on how to shape our digital future. To guide us, the report offers 5 main recommendations.

If you have only 2 minutes, skip to the bold sections to get an overall idea about the recommendations. If you have 10 minutes, read the analysis under each recommendation.

Recommendation #1: An inclusive digital economy and society

1A: We recommend that by 2030, every adult should have affordable access to digital networks, as well as digitally-enabled financial and health services , as a means to make a substantial contribution to achieving the SDGs. Provision of these services should guard against abuse by building on emerging principles and best practices, one example of which is providing the ability to opt in and opt out, and by encouraging informed public discourse.

For all its importance to society, access to the Internet featured directly in only one of the 17 sustainable development goals: Goal 9c.

The ‘Digital SDG’, or the ‘18th SDG’, has finally arrived, albeit with some delay. The Panel’s recommendation informally fills the gap by setting three concrete targets. Every adult (and not only adults in least developed countries) should have access to digital networks, digital financial, and health services by 2030. Thus, the Panel sets the stage for a holistic mainstreaming of ‘digital’ into the SDGs and Agenda 2030.

1B: We recommend that a broad, multi-stakeholder alliance, involving the UN, create a platform for sharing digital public goods , engaging talent and pooling data sets, in a manner that respects privacy, in areas related to attaining the SDGs.

From time to time, discussions on digital public goods trade their back row seats for a more prominent first row seat. In a span of over 20 years, the case for Internet as a public good developed into a finer reflection on which aspects, or artefacts, related to digital technology were considered public goods.

The Panel’s report goes a step further by recommending a platform for sharing digital public goods and for making them accessible. This marks another strong vote of support for SDGs.

The report also recommends that stakeholders pool data sets. This is a sore point in today’s uneven environment, populated by actors who possess large amounts of data sets, and others who would benefit greatly if only they had access to such data. It remains to be seen how this part of the recommendation could be approached and implemented.

1C: We call on the private sector, civil society, national governments, multilateral banks and the UN to adopt specific policies to support full digital inclusion and digital equality for women and traditionally marginalised groups . International organisations such as the World Bank and the UN should strengthen research and promote action on barriers women and marginalised groups face to digital inclusion and digital equality.

Here, the Panel reinforces the relevance of inclusion as one of the key themes related to digital technology. The recommendation falls short of mentioning any specific aspect of inclusion – such as access to the network, access to markets, etc – which is typical in discussions on access.

This actually sets the stage for a more holistic approach to digital inclusion, which should also tackle cultural, linguistic, and societal barriers in the digital field.

1D: We believe that a set of metrics for digital inclusiveness should be urgently agreed, measured worldwide and detailed with sex disaggregated data in the annual reports of institutions such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, other multilateral development banks and the OECD. From this, strategies and plans of action could be developed.

Another main issue related to data is the lack of solid data on digital developments in general. Digital inclusion could be the first step to make much more informed and evidence-based discussions on our digital presence and future.

Recommendation #2: Human and institutional capacity

We recommend the establishment of regional and global digital help desks to help governments, civil society and the private sector to understand digital issues and develop capacity to steer cooperation related to social and economic impacts of digital technologies.

For anyone involved in capacity development, this is great news. Many actors from small and developing countries need simple and easy access to the increasingly complex digital policy realm. Help desks can be tangible and an immediate follow-up to the Panel’s work.

The Panel also focuses on capacity development, which often does not go further than providing training for individuals. The impact of such training can be limited, if the institutions where these individuals work do not have the capacity to put newly developed skills to use, if existing policies do not facilitate growth, or if there is resistance to change. Therefore, developing the capacity of organisations and institutions is as important, if not more important, than developing individual capacity.  

Recommendation #3: Human rights and human agency

3A: Given that human rights apply fully in the digital world, we urge the UN Secretary-General to institute an agencies-wide review of how existing international human rights accords and standards apply to new and emerging digital technologies. Civil society, governments, the private sector and the public should be invited to submit their views on how to apply existing human rights instruments in the digital age in a proactive and transparent process.

Here, the Panel reiterates the prevailing concern that ‘digital’ impacts other human rights beyond the traditional freedom of expression and privacy. The Panel’s recommendation coincides with the initiative in the Human Rights Council by South Korea, Singapore, Austria, and Denmark to provide a comprehensive review of digital aspects in the existing human rights mechanisms and instruments.

3B: In the face of growing threats to human rights and safety, including those of children, we call on social media enterprises to work with governments, international and local civil society organisations and human rights experts around the world to fully understand and respond to concerns about existing or potential human rights violations.

This could be labelled as the ‘Facebook recommendation’ since most of the recent concerns on data and fake news are related to this tech company. The issues, however, impact the whole tech industry. The Panel sets the stage for discussion within the framework of human rights, without being too prescriptive.

3C: We believe that autonomous intelligent systems should be designed in ways that enable their decisions to be explained and humans to be accountable for their use . Audits and certification schemes should monitor compliance of artificial intelligence (AI) systems with engineering and ethical standards, which should be developed using multi-stakeholder and multilateral approaches. Life and death decisions should not be delegated to machines. We call for enhanced digital cooperation with multiple stakeholders to think through the design and application of these standards and principles such as transparency and non-bias in autonomous intelligent systems in different social settings.

This recommendation looks to future technologies, and specifically addresses artificial intelligence (AI). In recent times, themes such as understanding how AI systems work, and how/under which framework systems should be held accountable, were recurrent themes. In particular, accountability issues were predominant in discussions concerning life and death decisions. Here, the Panel takes a solid position.

Recommendation #4: Trust, security and stability

We recommend the development of 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.

The careful wording of this recommendation reflects the sensitivity of the global cybersecurity discussion which is currently taking place in two separate tracks: within the UN Governmental Group of Experts, and the UN Open Ended Working Group. The message in this recommendation is cautious but quite clear: we are aware of cybersecurity controversies; if other options do not work, here is our potential solution.

Recommendation #5: Global digital cooperation

5A: We recommend that, as a matter of urgency, the UN Secretary-General facilitate an agile and open consultation process to develop updated mechanisms for global digital cooperation, with the options discussed in Chapter 4 as a starting point. We suggest an initial goal of marking the UN’s 75th anniversary in 2020 with a “Global Commitment for Digital Cooperation” to enshrine shared values, principles, understandings and objectives for an improved global digital cooperation architecture. As part of this process, we understand that the UN Secretary-General may appoint a Technology Envoy.

One of the key recommendations on digital governance – which was the raison d’etre behind the Panel’s mandate – is tucked away in the last section of the report. This recommendation takes us back to Chapter 4 of the Panel’s report, which outlines three models for digital governance: Co-governance, IGF Plus, and Digital Commons. The discussion on functions and models for digital cooperation is likely to dominate post-Panel dynamics.

A very concrete recommendation is on mainstreaming digital aspects into the policy dynamics around the UN’s 75th anniversary. In this context, ‘digital’ is likely to feature prominently in debates of the UN General Assembly in September 2020.


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