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Unpacking the High-Level Panel’s Report on Digital Cooperation: Geneva policy experts propose action plan

Published on 01 July 2019
Updated on 05 April 2024

On 24 June, the digital policy community in Geneva gathered to discuss ways of implementing the final report of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, The Age of Digital Interdependence.

More than 80 participants from international organisations, diplomatic missions, academia, business, and civil society, contributed with concrete action points that could potentially see the report materialise in the months to come. The ‘Contributions from Geneva’ come one week after the report was officially launched in Geneva on 17 June. 

The expert discussion, Unpacking the High-Level Panel’s Report, was organised on Monday, 24th June, by the Geneva Internet Platform with the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN, and the State of Geneva, in partnership with the EU Delegation to the UN, the Permanent Mission of the UAE to the UN, the University of Geneva, ETH Zurich, and the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Expert discussants led the debates on each recommendation, which were organised as break-out sessions.


Implementation requires agility and convergence among actors

In the opening remarks to the expert discussion, the Panel’s report received significant praise for the comprehensive set of recommendations on how to improve digital cooperation and the current digital architecture.

Referring to the need to transform the recommendations into concrete actions, Dr Stephanie Borg Psaila, interim head of the Geneva Internet Platform, encouraged more timely follow-ups and discussions. In addition, the GIP provided a neutral, inclusive, and fully functional space where some of the recommendations could be implemented.

Mr Oliver Hoehne, Deputy Head of the Multilateral Division at the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN, also mentioned the need for agile follow-up to reflect the urgency and relevance of digital policy for modern society. There should also more efforts in connecting the dots between the work of organisations in policy areas such as trade, human rights, health, many of which are affected by digitalisation.

Emphasising the recommendations’ timely opportunity to create more convergence among the high number of mechanisms that make up the current digital architecture, Mr Nicholas Niggli, Deputy Secretary General, State of Geneva, stressed that Geneva can play a key role in implementing the Panel’s recommendations. ‘In this context, I can’t insist enough on the significant role the Geneva Internet Platform can play in bringing together the actors; it has in fact already taken important steps in this post-Panel process.’

Referring to the ongoing selections for the new European Commission’s presidency, Amb. Carl Hallergard, Deputy Head of EU Delegation to the UN, said that the Panel’s timely report can help create stronger links between the global digital policy agenda and the EU’s digital priorities. Various themes analysed in the report are also reflected in the EU’s policy agenda in the context of the EU’s work on the Digital Single Market, cybersecurity, human rights, development, and others. 

Actionable local initiatives were an important initial step in the scale-up strategy to implement the report’s recommendations. Speaking on behalf of the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and ETH Zurich, Prof. Edouard Bugnion, EPFL’s Vice-President, also said that academic and research communities can also contribute significantly to the implementation of the report. 

Referring to the contributions, Amb. Thomas Schneider, Head of International Relations, Swiss Federal Office of Communications, said that an improved policy architecture – one built on existing mechanisms and experiences, rather than the creation of new institutions – should provide incentives to all actors to co-operate in a constructive, inclusive, transparent and accountable manner, based on agreed values, principles, and sustainable development goals. 

One of the biggest gaps in the current system is the (political) disconnect between multistakeholder dialogue platforms like the IGF and decision-making entities on national and international levels, where decision-makers still too often decide isolated in their silos. We therefore need to create horizontal networks with low entry points and incentives for countries and relevant other actors to participate and connect. 

Amb. Schneider concluded that we should use the recommendations as a framework for advancing the debate on our digital future in an inclusive, informed, and impactful way.


The Panel’s five main recommendations

Introducing the main recommendations, Amb. Amandeep Singh Gill and Dr Jovan Kurblija, Executive Co-Directors of the Panel’s Secretariat, explained that the report provides a basis for discussion, which in turn should generate an in-depth reflection as well as new ideas and proposals. 

The Panel’s recommendations need to be considered in their entirety; the linkages between them – such as the need for capacity development in the fields of security and human rights – should be explored in depth. The follow-up processes and discussions needs to be facilitated by non-technical language, which can be understood by anyone who is affected by digital changes.

The report comes at a time which is driven by fast developments, and where different interests are often at loggerheads. The report ultimately provides inputs for the many choices and trade-offs which individuals, companies and governments will need to make. 

For more photos from this event, visit the photo gallery. For more updates about the implementation of the Panel’s report, and other updates on the Panel’s work, visit the dedicated page on the GIP Digital Watch observatory


Contributions from Geneva

The contributions from the expert discussants and participants focused on unpacking the report, and on proposing ideas for implementation and follow-up action points. Each set of contributions and action points correspond to the related recommendation made by the Panel.


#1: SDGs, connectivity, access, and affordability

  • The Panel’s recommendations can help develop the missing link between the SDGs and digital developments. Policy spaces for SDGs, and digital policy and development, need to be more in sync.
    Action: Present the Panel’s recommendations at the next High-Level Political Forum (New York, 9-18 July 2019), to discuss convergences, and establish lines of communication and exchange between the SDG community and the digital community (such as: online platforms, institutional networks, joint events, etc).
  • In tackling digital inclusion, the Panel’s report goes beyond issues related to access to networks (e.g. cables and infrastructure) by including, for example, access to health and financial services. But it falls short of including barriers related to digital skills, education, local content, culture, age, gender, and other aspects of digital inclusion. Connecting local communities and villages is a good approach towards digital inclusion, such as the Niger Smart Villages project.
    Action: Make an assessment of all barriers to digital inclusion; advance the discussion on digital inclusion in the build-up and during the upcoming Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meeting in Berlin (25-29 November), where inclusion will feature as one of the three core topics (the other two are data governance and cybersecurity).
  • Digital inclusion in the financial and health fields could benefit from the activities of Geneva-based organisations (UN organisations, the banking sector, health organisations, foundations, etc). Digital inclusion means inclusion of all stakeholders in the respective countries’ health sector (health ministry, professional associations like doctors, nurses and nutritionists, patients association, insurance companies) and financial sector (e.g. banks and financial intermediaries, as well as SMEs).
    Action: Organise a coordinating event on health and financial inclusion with international organisations, banks, academia, and other actors in Geneva (autumn 2019); promote wide range of inclusion: regional and country offices, local stakeholder groups (e.g. in the health sector, including public/private hospitals, and professional associations of doctors, nurses, patients associations etc, and the financial sector, including MSME representatives, cooperative finance institutions, and insurance companies).
  • The network of post offices provides a unique physical and social infrastructure for digital inclusion. The post office can be considered an early ‘social network’, existing long before Facebook and Twitter); yet, there is insufficient awareness about the UPU’s work. Post offices reach all corners of the globe, and play an important role in social and communal dynamics, especially in developing countries. The Universal Postal Union (UPU) has started numerous digitisation projects on e-literacy and start-ups. In addition, the postal network plays a vital role in the ‘parcelisation of trade’, one of the key aspects of e-commerce inclusion. Postal networks can potentially be used for the digital inclusion of not only the ‘next billion’, but also the ‘bottom billion’ of world citizens. 
    Action: Organise an awareness-building event on the role of post offices in the era of digital interdependence, for international organisations, the diplomatic community, and other actors in International Geneva. Similarly, awareness building on the work of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), another ‘network on the ground’, can help the digital inclusion for communities worldwide. 
  • Sooner or later, monopolies held by large companies and ICT service providers will affect markets and ultimately pose obstacles to the achievement of an inclusive economy. Developing countries are particularly exposed to the risk of digital monopolies due to the lack of anti-monopoly expertise and institutions, such as regulatory authorities, as well as a lack of policy and regulatory frameworks. 
    Action: Increase research, awareness-building, and policy action on the impact of monopolistic structures on developing economies; build on existing policy research and background studies, such as those published by the ITU and CUTS.
  • Most of the discussions on digital inclusion focus on technology and efficiency. The question of the effectiveness of digital transformation is often overlooked: Does digital technology help drive effective economic and societal development? Does digital technology increase participation and transparency?
    Action: Organise a debate on the link between the efficiency (digitalised work processes) and effectiveness (achieving the SDGs). This is particularly with regard to SDG 16 which deals with governance and policy aspects (see: recommendation on mechanisms).


#2 Help desks and capacity development

  • The help desks should be developed in the context of wider capacity development for digital governance and cooperation. 
    Action: Develop a directory of training, coaching, and other capacity building activities in the field of digital technologies with a focus on governments, parliaments, businesses, academia and diplomatic services in developing countries. 
  • Some of the envisaged help desk functions are already performed by the IGF (e.g. assistance in organising national and regional IGFs, engaging partners, capacity development, etc. In addition, help desks should provide an easy entry point into the diverse existing policy networks and mechanisms which are, often, difficult to grasp and navigate. 
    Action: Create a map of existing policy networks and mechanisms, and indicate potential areas of convergence (e.g. links around data governance). 
  • Several international organisations, academic institutions, and NGOs also offer ‘help desk’ functions (under different names, frameworks, and titles) in related policy areas.
    Action: In the process of developing help desks, consult the experience of similar and related initiatives (such as: global trade help desks provided by the WTO, UNCTAD and ITC; ITU’s help desk for technical assistance, etc). 
  • Capacity development in general, and the help desk in particular, should be closely related to local social dynamics, institutions, and regulations. They should reflect the local specificities which are triggered by digital developments (e.g. e-commerce, use of social media, risks of hate speech, etc.). 
    Action: Avoid a top-down approach when creating the help desks by developing local ‘policy sandboxes’ and facilitating networks of organisations that can provide help to local authorities, communities, and organisations. 
  • Help desks should reduce the risk of being ‘lost-in-translation’ in digital policy, by promoting multilingualism to ensure a smooth interplay between the different legal and policy approaches and concepts (e.g. gaps between precedent-driven digital regulations and the tradition of continental legal and policy systems). 
    Action: Develop dictionaries of digital governance with translations of the core concepts in the official UN and other languages; involve in the creation and running of the help desks the networks and organisations that promote the use of languages other than English (e.g. Francophonie, Lusophonie, etc); conduct in-depth research on the interplay among the different legal and policy systems worldwide. 
  • While humans should remain in charge of help desks, latest technologies such as AI and machine learning can help in, for example, identifying recurring requests for help and proposed solutions. 
    Action: Gather leading AI research institutions and companies in order to develop conceptual tools (ontologies, frameworks, linguistic analysis) and practical applications of AI and machine learning technology.
  • In the era of ‘trust deficit’, the legitimacy of the help desk is of high relevance especially for actors from small and developing countries. 
    Action: Ensure that help desks are associated to, or linked with, the UN system; create an association of help desks, composed of help desks from within the UN system, and other regional and professional organisations. 
  • Trainings and capacity development should facilitate a multi-disciplinary approach to digital policy. 
    Action: Bring together, in courses and training programmes, the communities of diplomats, scientists, and business people, to enable them to gain an understanding of each others’ policy framing through direct and practical experiences. 

#3 Values, human rights, and emerging technologies

  • The international human rights framework, which is sometimes perceived as distant from citizens, could regain new relevance by guiding the use of digital technology. 
    Action: Provide awareness building and training which emphasises the constructive role that the human rights framework may serve in guiding development of digital policy and practice in, for example, the field of AI.
  • The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is an existing human rights framework which should be used more by the tech industry and member states. 
    Action: Develop roadmaps/case studies on how the Guiding Principles apply to the tech industry, especially in areas such as AI and big data. 
  • A system-wide review of the application of the human rights framework to digital technologies, involving a wide range of stakeholders including non-UN actors, should be conveyed by the Secretary General, with a view to identifying opportunities to strengthen the protection of the rights of all people. 
    Action: In the process of designing this system-wide review, the UN OHCHR could modalities for consultations. 
  • The human rights review process should focus on the complementary roles of ethical and human rights frameworks as tools to guide governance and accountability for the design and use of new technology, and how the human rights framework can be leveraged to build peace and trust in cyberspace.
    Action: Conduct academic and policy research on the above-mentioned areas.

#4 A safe and stable digital space

  • It is important to build on the existing initiatives within the UN (e.g. UN GGE and the Open Ended Working Group) and beyond the UN (e.g. the Paris Call). The need for convergence between various cybersecurity processes is intensively discussed at the UN and in cybersecurity policy circles. 
    Action: The Panel’s recommendations could be used as a ‘safety net’ if other contexts do not provide the appropriate policy space for convergences. 
  • Cybersecurity discussions should be anchored in the SDGs and the development agenda in general. Priority should be given to the development of institutional and expert capacities of developing countries to deal with cybersecurity challenges. 
    Action: Strengthen the diplomatic and policy capacity of small and developing countries to participate in cybersecurity policy processes at the UN and at the regional level.
  • The UN should provide a neutral platform for addressing of cybersecurity issues. The UN should always highlight and appeal to its values and principles (which are also included in the Report) when approaching digital subjects. 
    Action: Strengthen the linkages between cybersecurity, SDGs, human rights and other value-centered activities. The IGF is a policy space where the interplay between values and cybersecurity can be addressed.
  • Cybersecurity should feature on the agenda of new partnerships (e.g. between the UN and WEF). 
    Action: Explore partnerships with other policy, technical, and industry networks and associations worldwide. 

#5 Mechanisms and models for digital cooperation

  • Mechanisms should support digital interdependence by reducing the risks of unilateral actions of powerful corporate players and governments. The mechanisms should take into consideration the asymmetry of digital power and limited interests of powerful actors to join the digital policy processes such as the IGF. 
    Action: Foster direct engagement with powerful digital actors to convey the message that their interests and benefits should align with the preservation of digital interdependence (value of networks, relevance of digital for global supply chains, etc.). 
  • Digital mechanisms transcend the Panel’s report, starting from values and principles, to specific policy areas. 
    Action: Facilitate inclusive and informed discussions following the Panel’s approach: identify the gaps in the existing mechanisms, assess which functions could address these very gaps, and conclude with institutional forms and mechanisms that could accommodate the identified core governance functions, guided by the models set out in the report. 
  • The HLP Report proposes three models (‘forms’) for digital governance. The lowest ‘hanging fruit’ is the IGF Plus proposal. Unlike other proposals, it can be developed within the existing UN mandate which provides the possibility for new approaches (e.g. issuing soft recommendations). 
    Action: Conduct a follow-up discussion on the ‘IGF Plus’ proposal through the IGF processes in build-up for the IGF in Berlin. 
  • The help desk function exists in most proposals. While this function is needed, there are concerns about its implementation, mostly related to the need for help desks to be neutral and independent from existing institutions and actors. The use of the term ‘clearing house’ was suggested instead of the designation ‘help desk’.
    Action: Consider the development of a network of help desks by using the existing institutions and platforms rather than creating new organisational and institutional structures. 
  • While the report puts strong emphasis on the use of digital technology for achieving SDGs, it is very weak in anchoring digital cooperation and governance within SDGs 16 and 17, which provide detailed targets on inclusion, decision-making, transparency, equality, and other aspects of digital policymaking. The SDGs should serve as guidelines for future digital policy making. 
    Action: Conduct research on the links between digital cooperation functions and mechanisms, and the related SDGs 16 and 17. 
  • There is a need to develop a new mindset and approach beyond the existing framing of digital policy. 
    Action: Organise a brainstorming exercise with policy, academic, and other communities, and engage artists, science fiction writers, gamers, and philosophical, spiritual and religious communities in the global debate on digital co-operation and governance. 

In the spirit of networking and a bottom-up approach, it is also suggested that international organisations, academia, governments, and the tech sector create follow-up networks to help implement the proposed actions.

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