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Last year, the UN Secretary-General appointed a ‘High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation’ to think about ‘the ways we work together to address the social, ethical, legal and economic impact of digital technologies in order to maximise their benefits and minimise their harm.’ The future of ‘digital governance’ and its relation to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were also put on its agenda.

The Panel had twenty members, drawn from a variety of (mostly IT-related) backgrounds, reasonably balanced (as these days is required) by gender, region and (let’s call it) stakeholder origin.  It was welcomed by some, less so – for various reasons – by others. Would it, all wondered, be a talking shop or have real impact on the terms of global discourse?

Its report was published back in June. A brief summary first, then some reflections – partly on what it says, partly on what it represents in the development of a Digital Society.

Digital interdependence

Our new digitising age is, the Panel declared in naming its report, an age of digital interdependence. If it is to benefit humanity – a stated goal of the United Nations if not of every human – it will require greater cooperation: multilateral, multistakeholder, grounded in ‘common human values’ which it enumerated (‘inclusiveness, respect, human-centeredness, human rights, international law, transparency and sustainability’).

Everyone, in short, should work together for the common good. More specifically, the Panel called for a Global Commitment on Digital Trust and Security (addressing issues around the ‘responsible’ use of technology’) and a Global Commitment for Digital Cooperation (‘to enshrine shared values, principles, understandings and objectives for an improved global digital cooperation architecture').  And it offered three potential models for cooperation.

Why a high level panel?

Unlike some, I liked the sound of the panel when it was established. I thought it might move on debates which have been stuck, for two reasons.

First, because it wasn’t just made up of usual suspects (one of the reasons it was criticised). Our transition to a digital society requires fresh thinking.  It’s hard to foster that in formal negotiating fora like the United Nations.  Digital discussion spaces are dominated by internet insiders and digital professionals. Small groups (plural, preferably) can add insight, especially if they’ve the time and space to talk in depth, if experts talk as individuals not representatives, if they’re willing to think outside the box.  

One model might have been the influential global commissions of the 1980s: the Brandt Commission, which reinvigorated notions of development (not to all tastes); the Brundtland Commission, which introduced ‘sustainable development’; in ICTS, the Maitland Commission, which first addressed what we now call the digital divide.

Digital cooperation not internet governance

Second, I liked the emphasis on ‘digital cooperation’ rather than ‘internet governance’ for two reasons. Because the digital future is about much more than the internet. And because a wider focus might help move forward from sterile arguments left over from the World Summit on the Information Society, like those about ‘enhanced cooperation’, that have sapped energy and enthusiasm.

What worried me about the Panel was its balance: chaired by big names from the corporate and philanthropic sides of Big IT (Melinda Gates, Jack Ma); largely made up of digital insiders.  

I’m not going to go into detail on the Panel's findings: there’s not the space to do so here.  Instead I’ll make three main points.

Where’s the value?

First, its value. It’s not a big leap forward, but it recognised important themes which have been bubbling round in international discourse lately (not least in statements from the Secretary-General): 

  • that the digital society brings with it profound challenges and threats as well as opportunities; 

  • that these reach beyond the competence of digital professionals into the realms of geopolitics, economics, social change and governance; 

  • that there’s a need to build dialogue that’s not just multistakeholder as well as multilateral (a demand of the Internet community) but multilateral as well as multistakeholder (that of traditional international governance).

Recognising these, I’d say, is necessary if we’re to address the complex, changing interfaces between human and digital priorities.

But do its recommendations really go that far?  

A Global Commitment for Digital Cooperation?

Take the call for a Global Commitment for Digital Cooperation. I agree that this would be worth having, if consensus can be reached. Aspirational directives agreed in international fora have real value, particularly where they’re backed by legal frameworks, norms and standards and the moral force that that implies.  

But let’s be realistic: they have limits. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has not brought about universal respect for human rights. Many governments sign international statements on gender equity, sustainability and inclusivity that aren’t borne out by practice on the ground. Governments and corporations have not been slow to nose out loopholes.

It won’t be easy to agree a Global Commitment, especially at speed (as hoped by the Panel). Consider, for example, the fifteen years of failure to agree on what ‘enhanced cooperation’ means in internet governance.  Consider, too, that global geopolitics today are more polarised than they’ve been for decades.  

And the value of a Commitment would lie in implementation, not in rhetoric. That’s harder still.

Mechanisms for digital cooperation

What of the mechanisms that the report suggests for digital cooperation?  The Panel couldn't reach agreement on a single mechanism, so it offered up three options.  

  • One would add more substance to the Internet Governance Forum, which was set up without authoritative roles.  

  • One would build on the amorphous networking of internet bodies such as ICANN and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).  

  • The third – described as a ‘digital commons architecture’ – looked back to international agreements on other areas of ‘common heritage’ such as the sea and climate change.

There are ideological divides visible in the failure to agree here – between governments and corporations, between multilateral and multistakeholder ideals, between authoritarian, democratic and libertarian approaches – above all, perhaps, between internet insiders and those whose experience lies in the established norms of international governance.

Four challenges

I’ll end with four challenges that underlie all this: acknowledged in the Panel’s report, but only partially addressed in what it recommends. 

First, the problems facing global governance are manifold. Some – inequality, poverty, gender discrimination, conflict over land and resources – have always been with us.  Others – climate change, pollution, the existential threat of modern weaponry – are of our time. Digitalisation interacts with these, it isn’t their solution.  Its global governance can’t be kept separate from theirs.

Second, the changes wrought by digitalisation are so great that old approaches aren’t likely to prove sustainable.  Digital enthusiasts often talk of technology and multistakeholderism displacing nation states and intergovernmental dialogue.  But look about you: digitalisation’s coinciding with a worldwide upsurge, not decline, in populism and nationalism.  

And it’s not just traditional modes of international governance that need to change with changing circumstances. So do those coming out of digital experience. It’s hardly likely that modes of governance that worked for small groups of internet pioneers in the 1980s will be suited to a coming age of digital predominance. Internet insiders, too, need to be less conservative in outlook.

Third, the three options for digital governance put forward by the Panel are highly complex mechanisms. They could only easily be navigated by those with big resources.  Fifteen years ago, I co-authored Louder Voices, a report that analysed the limited participation of developing countries in international decision-making about ICTs. Not much has changed, as the Panel recognised. Digital decision-making’s still dominated by the most powerful governments and, now, corporations.  

And finally, it’s practice rather than process that matters most.  It’s political will that counts – and the political will for international cooperation is less today than it was when the digital age was in its infancy. Something bigger and simpler’s needed if any mechanisms are to work.

Next week: UNCTAD’s latest 'Digital Economy' report (and maybe a shade more optimism).  

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.